Building the Body of Christ

Read Ephesians 4.1-16

We are the Body of Christ. We need each other. God has made us this way. Some to function as hands, some as ears, some as eyes, some as a nose or a mouth. Whatever our gifts, we are called together to be the Body of Christ.

 Apostles. These are the witnesses of Christ. These members of the early Christian community would see to it that traditions were kept, stories were handed down. With their experience, they could taste the faith and knew when different expressions rising up were sour grapes or the fruit of the Spirit.

The apostles are the mouth of the body. Telling the stories. Tasting the teachings. How important it is to have apostles in the church. Those members who tell us the old, old story that means so much. Our identity as Christians in an ever-changing world is in many ways shaped and maintained by these elders who see to it that the story gets told, that the faith is handed down.

Prophets. What about the prophets? Some people think of prophets as people who can predict the future. The Bible shows us that prophets are more than just fortune tellers, but members within the community who not only see what’s going on in the present, but know how God has acted in the past and can show us visions of what the future might hold if things go the way they’ve been going. Prophets are not always welcome in the community. Their words can be harsh and challenging.

Are there prophets in our church today? I believe there are. I believe God continues to speak through persons who are burrs on the skin of believers. The prophetic voice might come through a child who doesn’t quite fit in. It may be a member who has become dissatisfied with the way things are. These prophets may stir us up in such a way that we jump too quick to labeling them “troublemakers” “radicals” or “liberals.”

The truth is we need prophets. Prophets keep the church moving, looking back to reclaim its heritage, looking forward to discover new paths of ministry. Prophets are like the nose of the body, sniffing out things that have gone stale, following fresh new paths. Though apostle and prophets may disagree, we need them both working together if the church is to be the church, in ministry and mission. We need them both to breathe new life into the church, new life that comes from God.

Evangelists. You may think of evangelists as those charismatic individuals able to promote the faith. Folks like Billy Graham with the gift to draw people to listen to the word of God and respond to God’s call. These are the evangelists, some better, some worse, that get the attention of the public. There are other, quieter evangelists. People who share their faith and convictions through acts of kindness, through a quality of life.

Evangelists are like the hands of the body, reaching out to others, sharing their faith in word and deed. It doesn’t take a charismatic person to be an evangelist, just someone who can be with people where they are.

Teachers. Teachers are the ears of the body. Teachers listen, not only for the questions that come from students, but also for the truth that comes from God. Teachers are not those who have all the answers, but women and men who, through a life of faith, walk alongside us seeking God where He may be found.

 Finally, pastors. The word “pastor” in Greek may also be translated as “shepherd”; one who keeps watch, who oversees. Pastors are like the eyes of the body who look out for difficulties and provide support.

One of the important functions of the pastor is to see that the different body parts are working together. This is a difficult job, because where different people are working together, there is bound to be conflict. A lot of pastors are tempted to avoid conflict, to shout “Peace, peace, where there is no peace.” But if the eyes are always getting between the nose and the mouth, it won’t be long before the body needs serious plastic surgery.

Notice also that as this image is used in the Bible, none of us are the brains of the operation. Christ alone is the head. No one of us has sole possession of the truth, to know without a doubt what is best for the body. All we can do is go about the business of being ears or eyes or noses. Listening to, feeling for, sniffing out the presence of God in our world. Looking to the life of Jesus as our head.

The Prayers of God’s Children

I was 7 years old. My sister was 9. We had just gotten our first 2-wheeled bicycle. A real beauty. No training wheels.  It was used and a bit rusty, but nothing a little sanding and a strong coat of orange paint couldn’t fix.

Dad bought it for us, fixed it up and took us to the schoolyard to teach us how to ride. We took turns, starting off at home plate on the ball diamond, riding down the first base line. Dad running along behind us, his hand on the seat, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Keep pedaling.” A few times down the baseline and he was gasping for air, but still spitting out between breaths, “Don’t worry. Keep pedaling.” When I think about my father’s love for us, I picture him running along behind us, kicking up dust with his heels, red in the face, half-bent over from exhaustion, panting out, “Keep pedaling, I’ve got you.”

When the Psalmist considers God’s love in Psalm 103, the image that comes to mind is that of a father who has compassion for his children. God knows that we are dust, feeble creatures who stumble around often in the dark. Trying our best but still coming up short. Like children learning a new task. And like a father who has compassion for his children, God runs along behind us, urging us on, “Keep pedaling. I’ve got you.” The Psalmist, looking back over the history of the people Israel, sees that God has been gracious and kind, patient and forgiving. Like a father who has compassion for his children.

Jesus picks up this image of God as a loving father and carries it even further. The disciples come to Jesus and say to him, “Teach us how to pray.” They have heard that John has taught his followers a special way to pray and they want to learn how to pray as Jesus would have them.

Instead of giving them a lecture on prayer, Jesus prays with them. He begins with “Abba.” We say, “Our Father” and yet the word is even more intimate than that. In Hebrew, “Abba” might be the first word out of a child’s mouth as the child looks at the loving faces of her parents. Abba. Something like “Daddy.” When you pray, says Jesus, pray as a child who is first learning to speak. Look to God as the loving parent who will provide all that you need. Approach prayer in this way, says Jesus.

This approach to prayer that Jesus teaches gives us a unique image of God. It also says something about who we are in relationship to God. We are children of God. Our prayers to God are the prayers of children, thankful for God’s love, eager to receive God’s blessing, to be forgiven, to be delivered from temptation. The simplicity it captures our hearts and minds. It provides us with an approach to prayer which gives shape to our life of faith, lifts up our greatest praise and gives voice to our deepest longings.

The Lord’s Prayer is a family prayer, spoken not just in the quiet recesses of our hearts, but out loud, in the presence of all God’s children. Some time ago, I was sharing communion with a man who is struggling with a degenerative muscle disease. He was far away from family and friends, worried about his finances, trying his best to keep up as a provider for his family during this time of crisis. Trying to be the best father he knew how. He shook my hand firmly when we met and he spoke with confidence. Underneath he seemed weighed down by the burdens placed on him, but firmly resolved to keep them to himself. When we came to the part of the communion service where we say the Lord’s Prayer, he burst into tears, barely able to speak. The prayer, in all its simplicity reminded him he is a child of God, loved and cared for. Needing love. And not alone.

My prayer for fathers and for all of us is that we become aware of the embracing love of God to whom we pray as children learning to speak. As we are pedaling along as fast as we can to keep our balance, to become aware of the voice running along behind us, “Keep it up. I’ve got you.”

Seeing and Believing

It is evening and those who had followed Jesus were gathered together behind closed doors, fearful of those within the community who might be out to get them. They are grieving. Grieving the loss of their friend, their leader who in the short span of a week went from the glorious entry into Jerusalem, the triumphant shouts of “Hosanna in the Highest”, to the cross at Golgotha, the sneering jabs, “Let him save himself.”

The disciples are grieving. Grieving the loss of hope. The loss of hope that Jesus was the one to deliver Israel, to re-establish God’s kingdom on earth, bring peace and justice to the oppressed. This hope had been nailed to the cross. It is now evening and they are huddled together behind closed doors, perhaps drawing some comfort in being together, though frightened, sad, and confused.

Into this scene bursts Jesus. Jesus. John puts it plainly, there is no rattling of tables, no howling wind. This is no ghostly vision, but a real encounter with the Risen Christ. It’s enough to scare the holy terror out of the best disciple. Enough to shake up this rag-tag group of friends and followers, to jar them out of their hopelessness. “Peace” says Jesus. “Just as God has sent me, I send you.” In the midst of their fear, they are gathered together to receive God’s spirit, the courage and strength to go back into the world and pick up where Jesus left off.

But wait. Someone is missing. Where’s Thomas? Thomas, the faithful disciple. When Jesus had decided to risk death by entering Jerusalem, Thomas had said “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Where was Thomas as the disciples huddled together in their fear and sadness? We don’t know. We can only imagine that he was off to himself, the burden of his loss too great to share.

When Thomas shows up, the disciples are buzzing with enthusiasm.

“Guess who came for a visit? Jesus!”

“Right,” says Thomas. “Who are you trying to kid?”

Thomas is a man with his feet firmly planted on the ground, a loyal follower who isn’t going to be easily sold on some fancy idea.

“The door was locked and he came and stood among you? Is that your story? I’ll believe that when I see it. More than that, when I touch the nail prints. Then I’ll believe.”

Thomas is a courageous skeptic. Willing to go to his death following Jesus, no doubt feeling the depth of sorrow over the death of Jesus, we can not expect him to be an easy believer based on second-hand information.

All of us experience doubt. We live in an age of doubt, a society filled with “Doubting Thomas’s.” We desire proof, hard and fast evidence that a particular claim is rock-solid before we commit to believing it. Doubt is not in itself unhealthy or even an impediment to faith. Doubt can motivate us, like Thomas, to search for signs of new life. We don’t know where Thomas was when Christ first appeared to the disciples. Maybe while they were huddled together in fear, he was off searching for the Risen Christ in the world, risking death himself. The doubt which motives us to explore new possibilities can be life-affirming; can lead to even greater faith.

But doubts can also turn to despair. Particularly if we isolate ourselves from friends and family, from those who would care for us, ashamed of our doubts and uncertainties. Particularly if we fail to share our doubts. Had Thomas not returned to that band of frightened but faithful friends, this would be a different story altogether.

The beauty of this story is that God does not abandon Thomas in his disbelief. Jesus comes again and stands among them, addressing Thomas by name. See and touch. Believe. Thomas’s response is echoed in the faith that has lasted through the centuries, “My Lord and my God.”

Seeing is not necessarily believing. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Unlike Thomas, few are given hard evidence of new life that transcends death. Most do not see and touch as Thomas did. The reality of the resurrection goes beyond what we can see and touch. 

 What will it take for us to believe in the resurrection? Not just pay lip-service to it, but to stake our lives on the Gospel truth that Jesus died and rose and again, and that through him we are raised to new life beyond the shadow of death.

Whatever it takes, it’s not going to be of our own making. God will reveal himself in his own time, his own place, to his own people. The best we can do is seek God while he may be found and call on Christ as “My Lord, and my God.”

The Gift of Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a gift from God. It’s a gift to be shared; and we’re just the ones to share it.

 My grandmother had two older brothers named Jim and George. The story goes that Jim sold a pig to George that died three days later. George was convinced that he’d been had so he demanded his money back. Jim was offended he’d been called a swindler by his own brother. The two of them exchanged words and settled on an agreement that if either of them set foot on the other one’s property, he’d get shot. 

After 30 years of silence, they broke their truce. It was at their own mother’s funeral. We were gathered around the graveside when all of a sudden George walks over to Jim and puts a hand on his shoulder. Jim looks up, sees it’s George, nods his head. It wasn’t much, but all of us there looked on in amazement. The sight of George’s hand resting peacefully on Jim’s shoulder was the sign of reconciliation we’d all worked and prayed for for so many years.

Reconciliation is a gift of God. In Christ, our relationship to God has been restored. As we accept this gift, our outlook on each other dramatically changes. The barriers we have used to hide from God and each other are broken down. We all have these barriers. They may be more subtle or complex than the barrier of a dead pig, but they’re just as isolating. We may use politics, education, even religion to draw the dividing lines, the effect is all the same. 

The good news is that in Christ, our relationships are restored. Our barriers are broken down. We are given a fresh outlook. As we accept the gospel, we no longer judge others according to externals. No longer according to what we see, but according to what Christ sees in us.

I had the opportunity to work for a year at an institution for persons with developmental disabilities. These persons were classified as “severely” and “profoundly” retarded. Few could walk. Even fewer could speak more than a couple words. Most had physical impairments, what some would call “deformities.” I saw visitors come and go, obviously affected by the sight of these persons rocking in a wheelchair, unable to speak. I saw a number of visitors leave with tears in their eyes, telling me, “I don’t know how you work here. It just tears me up.”

I saw something quite different from the staff, however. These people had learned to work daily with handicapped not because they shut out a part of themselves, not because they shut off feelings of sadness, but because they saw things differently. They had been given a new perspective and could see beyond the handicaps, the barriers which prevent most of us from truly sharing ourselves with a person so different from us. They no longer judged from “a human point of view,” but shared the joy of restored relations with persons we would normally shut out. Reconciliation is a gift to be shared.

Paul had deep affection for the faith community at Corinth. We see the special role the Corinthians believers share in the ministry of the gospel. Paul’s words are both uplifting and challenging. “We are ambassadors for Christ.” “God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.” Paul encourages the believers with words which also set forth their special responsibilities as followers of Christ. Paul here confronts the community not by telling them what to do, but by reminding them who they are – ambassadors of Christ.

There is a great need for reconciliation, both within the Church and around the world. Between individuals, communities, and nations. Awhile back I saw a photograph of survivors of an earthquake in Armenia. They were standing among the ruins. A mother with her baby. A young boy. An old man. It was a great tragedy and what struck me about the photograph was how each person seemed to be lost in the depth of personal tragedy. Their eyes did not meet. Each stood alone in pain.

In Christ, we are called out of isolation to proclaim the hope of restored relations. We are called out of hiding to face the divisions which separate us from each other. We are called out to proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That in Christ, God descended to the depths of personal tragedy to lift us to new heights of reconciliation. We are not alone.

Reconciliation is a gift from God. It is a gift to be shared. And we’re just the ones to share it. 

The Good News?

The author of Luke calls John’s message, “Good news.” In Luke 3.18, “so with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.” This is the Good News! This is the Good News? Children of Snakes? Repentance? Turn from your ways? How is this good news?

I believe it’s possible to hear the good news of John the Baptist only as we reflect on what’s missing in our lives. The people who came to hear his message were looking for something. Something was missing and they knew it. In their experience of suffering, in their day-to-day struggles, they had lost sight of what gave meaning to their lives. God seemed absent. The old answers didn’t seem to fit. They saw in the words of John the Baptist hope, the hope that God had not abandoned them but instead was working in their midst to turn things around, to change the course of history, to give purpose to their lives.

I have a good friend whose father died just before Christmas. For years he found it next to impossible to endure the glad tidings of the holiday season. The tinsel and the bright lights did not relate to his experience of loss. In fact, they served as painful reminders of what he had lost. Try as he might, there was nothing in the glitter, in the old times, that would bring hope.

What happens for those who find it difficult to get into the holiday spirit? For those who instead experience pain and loss, who feel not the warm, cozy feeling of the holiday glow, but the nagging sensation that something is not right, something is missing. 

There is good news in the message of John the Baptist. God is not absent from our lives. God is in our midst. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, as we look forward to his coming again, we find hope in the God who is willing to come to us, to be with us, to suffer as we suffer, to rejoice with us, to comfort and challenge us. God has not abandoned us.

This is the good news, especially when things we’ve grown to rely on no longer work for us. Spirited good times become mixed with painful memories of loss. Seemingly innocent longing for things becomes mixed with the anxiety of not having enough to pay the bills. Even so, says John the Baptist, “Be good to one another. Share what you have. Be honest and accept what you’re given.” Continue to do what is good and right even in these desperate times. God is in our midst. This is the good news.

Some things are difficult to prepare for. Last Friday night I was called in to sit with a woman whose husband had just died. When I arrived I found it was family I knew well. I had visited frequently with them, shared in prayer and communion. I was at first shocked and then grieved the loss. It is difficult for me, and certainly for family and friends to connect the joy of shared life with this experience of loss.

Even so, there is hope. After visiting with the wife and friends, I spoke with the nurses. They described how beautiful his last moments were. He was ready to die and just before his last breath he took his wife’s hand and they said together the Lord’s Prayer. Even in death, hope endures. God’s final Word is a blessing.

God’s good news proclaimed by John the Baptist and embodied in Jesus Christ is that life at its core is worth living. Death and dying do not rob us of that. Instead, with hope for new life in Christ, we can endure the worst pain and suffering without giving up. We can let go of the things of this world we cling to — things that ultimately prove to leave us empty and spiritually void.

There is good news for all when labor and are heavily laden. For those who sense something is missing. For those who suffer loss. There is hope even beyond belief.

How Long, Lord?

Read Luke 18.1-6Habakkuk 1.1-3 & 2.1-4

Persistence pays off. Jesus tells this story of a widow who incessantly petitions a judge to give her what is her due. he widow’s persistence pays off. The judge grants her justice just to get her off his back. The message that is added to the parable focuses on the persistence of the widow, not so much on the attitude or action of the judge. We, like the widow, are to be persistent in prayer, in lifting up our petitions to God. Not because God is like an unjust judge who will grant our wish to keep us off the divine back. “Will not God, who is so much more gracious than this judge, grant justice to God’s chosen ones?” And quickly. The answer implied in the text is a resounding “Yes!”

The focus of this parable and the passages we’ve read for today is on persistent prayer. Prayer is understood here in a broader sense than asking God for something you want or need. Habakkuk’s prayer is a protest. “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help and you not listen?” This protest to God comes from the experience of suffering, from encountering violence and injustice. Habakkuk cries out to God and waits for a response.

This waiting is the key. Habakkuk is not a whiner, mumbling under his breath something God can barely hear and then going about his business as if nothing happened. “Who me?” I didn’t say anything.” No, Habakkuk lifts up his complaint and waits. “I will stand at my watch post. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me.” Habakkuk is persistent in prayer, not only lifting up has complaint, but waiting and watching for a response.

There is no direct evidence of a tangible reward granted Habakkuk for his persistence. His wish is not granted, so far as we know. Still, he is blessed with trust and joy in the midst of trouble. “Though the fig tree does not blossom,” he writes, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” “God, the Lord, is my strength.” Habakkuk’s faith, his trust in God, is his reward in the midst of troubles. His ability to cry out to God, “How long, Lord?” Is a blessing. Troubles do not magically disappear, but he draws strength from the one who hears his prayers, who stands with him in his trouble.

Prayers are more than just asking God for something. Praying is done more often than when we are silent, with our head bowed and our eyes closed. I can’t imagine Habakkuk silently whispering, “How long, Lord?” I’m sure his was more a gutteral burst of frantic energy, “How long, LORD!” The Bible provides us with a wide range of prayers in the Psalms. From the desperate pleas, “With my whole heart I cry, answer me, O Lord,” to the bursting exuberance, “O, Lord, how I love your law,” to the challenging questions, “How can young people keep their way pure?” All these within a single Psalm.

If prayer is to be persistent, it must be the prayer of the whole heart, the whole self, not just the part we find most appealing. Persistent prayer includes the bowing down and the crying out. The wonder. The anger. The sighs and grunts and groans too deep for words.

God’s Spirit moves us through the stages of prayer from the words on our lips, the familiar prayers, to the sighs, grunts, and groans too deep for words. We move towards deeper union with God to whom we offer praise and protest, winding up in a place of wonder, of marvel, of awe.

It took a lot of courage for the widow to speak out against injustice, especially to such a powerful judge. To be persistent, standing and waiting for an answer to the question, “How Long?” Her persistence pays off. How much more so with God, who has shown himself merciful and kind, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

“How long?” the cry of Habakkuk.

“How long?” the cry of Jesus.

“How long?” the cry of all who suffer and believe God great enough to endure the suffering, to remain faithful to us, to suffer with us, as we watch and wait.

The Road to Em’maus

Read Luke 24.13-35

Two men are walking away from Jerusalem. Probably on business, they’re talking over the latest rumor that is circulating about the prophet Jesus. Some women claim that his body is gone; that they had seen a vision of angels. They claim that he lives. Now they are mulling over these reports, wondering how much stock to put in the word of these two women. Doubtful.

A stranger joins them. In the tradition of Hebrew Scriptures, there is a common theme of God visiting humanity as an angel taking the form of a stranger. Abraham received visitors. Jacob wrestled with one. There is common thread of God coming to humanity in order to reveal or to test us. These two would have been aware of this tradition, could have anticipated the potential of entertaining an angel unaware. Added to this the report of the women and we would expect them to be looking out for such an occurrence. But as the stranger joins them, they fail to recognize him.

There are various possible answers to why they didn’t recognize Jesus. First, that they didn’t know Jesus that well. These two were not part of the “inner circle” of disciples who were with Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, as he cleansed the temple, as he healed and taught. Those disciples ate with him, traveled with him, prayed with him. We don’t know much about these two, but it is likely they were part of the number of followers who came late, perhaps among the crowd gathered as Jesus entered Jerusalem, laying down palms and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest.” We don’t know if they even knew Jesus well enough to recognize him.

Perhaps also, like Mary, they were blinded by their experience of grief, of loss, such that they just weren’t looking for the risen Christ. It had only been a few days since they had witnessed the death of Jesus on a cross. An agonizing death and the loss of hope that God would usher in a new age, that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government. This would be enough to send anyone into shock.

But this answer isn’t a satisfying one, either. After all, it had been a few days, they were able to talk about the events that had occurred that week. They were trying to make sense of it. More than this, they had heard reports from the women who had visited the tomb that was cause for a glimmer of hope. It wasn’t because of their intense grief that they didn’t recognize Jesus. What could it be?

Maybe it wasn’t them, but Jesus. Maybe the body of Jesus had been significantly transformed such that it was barely recognizable. This is a good possibility. After all, they had last seen the body of Jesus hanging limp on a cross, all the life having been drained from it. Certainly the form of the risen Christ would have been significantly different. Something like a “spiritual body” as the Apostle Paul called it.

And yet this doesn’t fully answer the problem, either. After all, the body did not appear to them as angelic, but simply “as a stranger,” a common wanderer. Similarly, Mary thought the risen Christ was a simple gardener. Whatever form Christ took, it was more a physical form than a spiritual one.

So what is it that keeps them from recognizing Christ? I believe the answer is found within the story itself. I believe the answer is found within the story itself. In verse 25, the story takes an important shift. Christ speaks to them, saying, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

The stranger then begins to reveal the Scriptures to them, what we know as the Old Testament, expounding on the Messianic hope found in the writings and how this hope had been met. It wasn’t a political revolution led by a dynamic warrior, but the atoning death and resurrection of a suffering servant. This was God’s plan. This was the hope of Israel. This was what Christ had done.

They then sit down to table. The stranger and the two disciples. As the stranger blesses and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him as Christ.

There is something about the breaking of the bread and the expounding of the Scriptures which help them recognize the Risen Christ. This is the key. The presence of Christ is connected to these two events, the reading and expounding of Scripture and the breaking of bread.

The Word proclaimed in preaching and the Word remembered in the breaking of bread prompts us to recognize Christ in our lives today and look for him on the day he comes again.