This is the transcript of my sermon given to our home church on 11/15/18.
At the last camp I worked at, we didn’t have chapel sessions like we do here. We had vespers, which was evening worship. Twice a week vespers was all camp, twice a week it was your whole area, or age group, and twice a week the counselors were responsible for coming up with vespers for the cabin. But I was so bad at this. So bad. The way my brain works is that I have to brute force my way through things, like a computer going item by item through a bulk of information, and trying to do that with the Bible when I didn’t know it as well as I should have left me scrambling every week.
But once I came up with an idea, I latched onto it, like “I’m never letting you go this is gonna work forever!” Forever with an “a:” for-e-var. Week 7 my first summer, I had this idea based on the body of Christ passage from 1 Corinthians 12, you know, where Paul goes through, if the foot should say “I’m not a hand” it doesn’t stop being a part of the body, and so on. And my idea was that, I’m gonna have my guys pair off and draw chalk outlines of each other, and try to use that as a visual for, like, here’s a body, and notice how similar we are, even though we’re also all different, and try using that as like an entry point of showing how we’re all a part of the body of Christ. And like I said, I latched onto this idea, and it became my one thing where I was like, “well I may not know what I’m gonna do for one, but I’ve got this other one ready to go.”
Also I know everyone will be thinking about it if I don’t say something, but sorry, we’re not tracing each other out of chalk. Just kind of use your imagination, I guess.
Anyways, moving forward after working at that camp, I had this sort of muddy memory of what I did for this vesper session, which, when paired with me trying to figure out my path moving forward as I was going through seminary, resulted in this kind of sectioned off picture of me trying to figure out which part of the body of Christ I belonged to, how I was supposed to be used in a job, what message to bring, all while feeling frustrated not only that I wasn’t able to figure out where I fit in the body, but that I knew I wasn’t currently in the right spot.
But if I’m completely honest, I think that this approach to understanding the body of Christ, how the individual fits into the body, is important, but over focused on. And I think this, as with many other times when we have issues approaching imagery or doctrine, is a time where our perception of some key piece of the imagery is skewed in some way.
So in thinking about what that might be in terms of the body of Christ, my first thought was maybe the issue is coming in terms of body image issues, which are myriad in our culture and certainly true for myself. But I don’t think this is the issue, because, at least for me when I think about the “body of Christ,” I’m not using my own body and its issues, or my issues with it, to visualize the imagery, but a more anatomically neutral, this is the way a body is supposed to function type of image. I think the body image issue is also lacking when we look back at the 1 Corinthians text and see Paul’s discussion about the whole body as an eye or some other body part. That type of an issue isn’t something we think of in terms of body image because there is no body that is just an eye.
Instead, I think our issue, especially for Americans, comes more with our understanding of systems, families, the church; basically, how groups function versus how individual people function. We’re very good at understanding that individuals form a group, and that individuals maintain their identity while in a group, but not as good about what it means to function as a group. We’re also really good at identifying smaller in-group/out-group groupings, but not as great when it comes to larger groups, or how different in-groups and out-groups overlap in different ways.
In Ephesians, Paul talks a lot about what it means to be “in Christ,” and about Christ as the head of the body, an approach that becomes far less about the individual and far more about the group. It focuses completely on how we, the group we and the individual we, relates to the whole Trinity through Christ, and to everyone who is in Christ. I think really specifically, the focus is on how Christ as the catalyst joins us in union with God and with others. And it’s seriously like the whole book. Ephesians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” 4:11-13 “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” And on and on, more and more. This is the whole book of Ephesians.
I have become more and more convinced, especially going through Ephesians recently, that the key to understanding so much of what relates to my call, to understanding church, our actions, reconciliation, justice, all of this and more, is grounded in Christ as the catalyst connecting us to God and to others. I bought the NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, and something the author says in the book is that christology is soteriology is ecclesiology is ethics. Once again, christology is soteriology is ecclesiology is ethics. That is, christology, the study/understanding/theology of Christ, is soteriology, the study/understanding/theology of salvation, is ecclesiology, the study/understanding/theology of the church, is ethics, literally how and why we act as we do.
Or to use another image, we can take the cross and understand our relationships through that image. The vertical line, the vertical relationship, the up and down is between us and God, and the horizontal line, the horizontal relationship connects us on the same plane with each other and with other people, forming the image of the cross. This happens in Christ, this is where we dwell, where the church is to dwell, where we understand our salvation, where we draw our actions from, from being in Christ.
And to all of this, we might say, “well, duh, I get this. Obviously this is the case. Go back and tell me something I don’t know, buddy.” But do we really? Do we really understand this? Because for sure for the last 5 years, and maybe for the last 8, I’ve been thinking about the last two pieces of the commentary’s equation, ecclesiology and ethics, and I have grown and continue to remain concerned that we are missing huge pieces relating to these two areas of theology.
Let me go back to Ephesians. If you remember the last piece I read from there, 4:11-13, it says “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” It continues in 14-16 “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 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. 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.”
If I had to pinpoint one piece of what my biggest concern is for the church, this is the piece. This passage, hinging on the “then” in verse 14. This “then” tells us that the second half of the passage is contingent on the first. In this case, we will not be infants tossed back and forth in the waves and blown every which way by every wind of teaching, but will grow into the mature body of Christ because we have reached unity in the faith. Understanding that unity, and being able to teach what that means to the church, is something that is lacking. What are we teaching, and how we are teaching it, affects how we live. If christology is soteriology is ecclesiology is ethics, then what we do in church has direct impact on our understanding of Christ, salvation, and ethics. This is part of why I focus on the white evangelical church; it’s what I know and where I’m from. I think we end up with very cookie cutter, repeated messages that are not as grounded in scripture as they should be, which impacts the ability to which Christians are able to understand and interpret and apply scripture. I understand here a desire for churches to be “seeker sensitive,” with concern for teaching difficult topics to people who may not have the background to understand something. But if we continue down the path we’re on, no one will have that background. People have the ability to understand far more than we might think, especially when we are teaching well.
There is an importance here to understand what we are teaching for. I have a friend I worked with at camp, Casey, whose goal in life is to become a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. We were in a conversation once where he said something like “well, I’m not a seminarian or a theologian” when discussing some topic. But the thing is, he doesn’t have to be. The majority of the church is not people in vocational ministry. But we need to understand that this group that makes up the majority of the church needs to be taught the Bible, needs to be brought to a place of standing on and in Christ, because as members of the church and by being in Christ they are in ministry.
So, how does all of this have any impact on the body of Christ imagery, and why does it matter whether we approach the imagery with an individualistic sense or with a group sense? The importance here, I think, is in understanding that there are others, a diversity of others, with us in the body of Christ. I think there is a demonstrable fear of “the other” in our country that is reflected in the church. It’s a demonstration of our in-group/out-group categorization at its worst, a stance which in no way represents what is meant by life in the body of Christ. There is this very loud cultural expectation at the moment that people need to become “like us” in order to be included, but our current definition of “like us” does not represent where we should begin or end our in-group consideration.
I think a lot about the doctrine of imago Dei, “the image of God.” All humans are created in the image of God, and all are redeemable and valuable because of this. This is where our in-group understanding comes from. God created each of these people as diverse, and we do not become homogenous when we come to live together in Christ. We do not become the same. It is not that our differences do not matter, and should not be taken into account when we are joined together in Christ. It is that our differences are beautiful, and are a reflection of the handiwork of God. We do not lose our differences in Christ; we unify in Christ. The change that comes from living in Christ is reflected in the horizontal and vertical relationships reflected in the cross, our call to ethical, righteous, just living, living in union with God and with others, and not in losing or shedding the cultural pieces that make us different. To quote from the NIV Application commentary, “Life in Christ means unity with God and the other people in Christ, and the resultant union is the place where God chooses to reside (138-139).” The resultant union is the place where God chooses to reside. And this is not just important for the broader church as a whole. The local church needs to be a reflection of this diversity and unity as well, incorporating these things as vital pieces of discipleship.
Let me close with one more story. In seminary, I had a professor, Dr. Carroll, who’s half Guatemalan. Six foot six, half Guatemalan. I’d read a book he wrote while I was in college, and let’s just say the person I met wasn’t really who I was expecting to meet.
Dr. Carroll grew up splitting time between Houston and Guatemala City, and after he graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary he spent 15 years teaching at a seminary in Guatemala City before moving up to Denver. While at Denver Seminary he helped start an Associate’s level program in Spanish, and the year after I graduated he moved to teach at Wheaton and to assist with attracting Latino and Latina students to Wheaton’s seminary. For a period of time, if not still, I’d say he was also the leading evangelical academic voice regarding the issue of immigration, and understanding a biblical approach to immigration. Because of his physical features, Dr. Carroll doesn’t look Latino, and he talked about how this meant people would often be a little more candid when discussing immigration issues or the Latin American community around him. I had Dr. Carroll for Old Testament survey 2, covering the prophets and wisdom literature, for Old Testament Ethics, and for a hispanic theology class, and through all 3 classes, Dr. Carroll had this incredible ability to teach the Bible as a story, and to focus on and demonstrate how different cultural groups approach biblical interpretation. Dr. Carroll identified with one of the groups considered “the other,” and his identification and intense care for this group came through in one phrase I heard him say many times: “eso es mi gente.” These are my people. I see my people reflected in the stories of the Bible. I see my people and the treatment they endure today. And he used his position to at the very least attempt to bring to light the need for the evangelical church to identify with the other. And in turn I look at the white American evangelical church, I look at how we are tossed, afraid, unsure, beholden to American culture rather than the Bible or to dwelling in Christ, the inability to see “the other” as our brother, and I say, “eso es mi gente.” These are my people, and they are looking into the faces of others and seeing enemies instead of brothers. I cannot stand aside and watch this happen silently. We need to learn to apply the text, to see the value in each person that comes from being created in the image of God, to redefine nuestra gente, our people, as a larger group, to remember where we’ve been and what has been done for us through the cross, and to dwell in Christ.