You know what its like when you have always been aware of different pieces of information and then something happens that seems to connect them which allows you to see something that you hadn’t seen clearly before? I think the best way I can describe what I am talking about is those dot to dot books. You know, you join the dots in numerical sequence and the lines gradually reveal a picture you couldn’t see by just looking at the dots.
Over Easter I was reading my former Asbury Prof Steve Seamands new book called “Give Them Christ.” This is a must have book if you preach at all and in it, in his typically deeply practical and yet profoundly spiritual way, Steve argues that we should focus on Christ at the great Christian festivals, like Christmas, Easter, Ascension. His complaint is that far too much preaching “Instead of revolving around Jesus Christ and Him crucified, revolves around the human condition and how to improve it. Human self esteem, not Christ, has become the object of faith; the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of holiness, has become the goal of the Christian life.” `Steve isn’t saying that our sermons should never be relevant or address human “felt needs” but especially at Christmas, Easter etc its a matter of emphasis. If we don’t focus on Christ we can give the impression that the Christian life is simply about some supernatural help for a little bit of self improvement rather than the call to surrender our life to Christ and radically reorientate our lives around him and His Kingdom.
Anyway the “dot to dot” moment happened for me when reading about the resurrection and I wanted to share with you Steve’s main point in the hope that you might get “a wee glimpse of this big picture” when it comes to the resurrection and the Church.
The New Testament is replete with metaphors to help us understand and experience what it means to be the Church, so the church is the family of God, the army of God etc. However one metaphor from Paul has rightly become foundational in helping us understand the Church, that is that we are the “Body of Christ” Paul expresses this metaphor perhaps with most clarity in these words, “All of you together as Christ’s body and each of you is a part of it” 1 Cor 12:27 So far so good, most of us understand the Church is the Body of Christ, but what does it actually mean?
Well Paul obviously means that the “body of Christ” is composed of people because he talks about us belonging to it. Yet even to say that the “Body of Christ” is people is to say to little. Institutes often talk about their corporate membership or decision making body made up of people as being a “body.” Often the chairman calls on proposals from “the body” or speaks about the decision of “the body.” That is not what Paul means in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else in the New Testament. The Body of Christ is not just another way of saying “the corporate body” of Christians.
So what does Paul mean? Steve draws attention with many other scholars to Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road recorded in the book of Acts. Paul was going to persecute the Church and yet in that encounter the Risen Christ accuses Paul of persecuting Him personally. If you reflect on that for a moment it becomes pretty clear that the earliest Christians understood that there was the closest possible relationship between the Risen Christ and his people the Church. An assault on them was an assault on Him.
He then unpacks the implications of this understand a bit further and argues that it lies behind Paul’s understanding of the Body of Christ. The “Body of Christ” he says is not a corporate “body” but a “corporeal body.” Steve puts it like this ” So when Paul says “You are the Body of Christ” he doesn’t mean, “you are part of a corporate body of people who are together seeking to follow Christ” What he does mean is, “You are part of Christ’s very own corporeal body.” And of course that only makes sense if Christ has been raised from the dead.”p122
When we are baptised we are baptised into “Christ’s Body” and together we are held together in that body by Christ as its head. We come, through the power of the Spirit, to participate in Christ’s very own resurrection body. Steve explains the significance of this in through these words, ” “The Church” Dietrich Bonhoeffer often stressed “is Christ existing as community.” As incarnate Lord, he became an individual flesh and blood person and assumed a body. But as our Risen Lord, he is both an individual person with a glorified body and according to Bonhoeffer, a corporate person with a body, the church, through which he lives, and governs and ministers. So we should of the church “not as an institution, but as a person, though, of course, a person in a unique sense.” p124
Steve then goes on to express what he sees as the main practical implication of this understanding of the Church, “When we fail to understand it, the church is reduced to a human religious institution and inevitably becomes more about us than it is about Christ. We, the members and parts of the body, end up taking control of its leadership and setting its goals. Human initiative and energy fuel its life. It becomes “our church” “that family’s church” or “my church” more than Christ’s. The hymn writer is right: The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord! How often we need reminded of that!” p124
I have always know this in theory but its come to me in a fresh way through Steve’s words. In the same way that Mary encountered the Risen Christ at the tomb, people around us today can encounter the Risen Christ through us as a community. This has huge implications for how we understand mission and evangelism, never mind church government. It should give us a holy sense of awe when we meet together, not because of some great religious building but because the Risen Christ is present!