In my recent post regarding the Body of Christ, how it functions when it is healthy, we saw how the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to illustrate some of life’s richest experiences Christians share in their life together, as “members one of another” (I Corinthians 12) – caring, sharing, encouraging, comforting, bearing one another’s burdens, praying for one another, accepting one another, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, loving one another as Jesus has loved us. As a pastor, with more than sixty years of pastoral experience in a variety of churches, it comes as no surprise to me that Paul, the founder of so many churches during his missionary journeys, has so much to say in his letters to those churches about our relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, resolving conflicts, keeping the various parts of the Body of Christ working together lovingly, forgiving one another, cooperating, compromising, being slow to speak and quick to listen, speaking the truth in love, serving together for the common good, for the building up of the Body of Christ, by maintaining the peace, purity, and unity of the church. Paul is always very specific in telling us how this can be accomplished. The greatest theologian of the Early Church, and one of the greatest intellectuals of his day, did not use lofty words or academic language, in his epistles to the young churches. He was not trying to impress his readers with his knowledge, by boasting of his scholarly credentials, so that their faith and faithfulness “…might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:5) – for that was the only power that could heal their divisions, resolve their conflicts, change their attitudes, break their stubborn pride, so they could grow together in the exciting adventure of of loving one another as Jesus had loved them.
One of the most fascinating books I have ever read dealing with the fact that we human beings have been “FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE“ (Psalm 139) was written by a Christian physician, Dr. Paul Brand, in collaboration with the well-known Christian author, Philip Yancey. The book was so beautifully written as only a physician could write about the amazing complex structure and functioning of the human body, which is the apt metaphor the Apostle Paul uses for the Church, as the “Body of Christ.” In the chapter dealing with the body’s “joints” and the movement of the body, the authors introduce us to the problem of “dysfunctions,” severe problems that can cripple the body, such as rheumatoid arthritis. I am now having problems with arthritis in my right hand, my fingers and knuckles, and am experiencing pain at this very moment as I sit at my computer keyboard and type this blog. Arthritis strikes at all the body’s joints because of “friction”, when bones become rough and grate together like sandpaper. I have had both knees replaced because of this very problem in the human body, which goes to great lengths to prevent friction, lubricating its moving parts with incredible efficiency. Dr. Brand, a professor of orthopedic surgery, explained how joint cartilage (when there is still some left in the joints) is filled with tiny channels of “synovial fluid,” and small jets shoot this fluid into cartilage bearing the strain of the body’s movement, so the joints can work properly without such friction. Surfaces within the joints don’t actually touch, but float on liquid. No wonder joints can last so long, for so many years in most cases, without a breakdown. God made our bodies this way, so there would be no such problems, with these parts of the body working together smoothly.
Well, just as smoothness of function is a major concern in the functioning of the human body, so also in the Body of Christ. The absence of cartilage and the lubricating power of synovial fluid results not only in discomfort, and eventually great pain, but can have a crippling effect in the body. Suffice it to say, these bodies of ours are one giant miracle of cooperation and coordination, and it is easy to see why Paul chose this as a metaphor for the proper functioning of the Body of Christ. Working together properly is one of the most important aspects of our life together (i.e. “body life”), including the proper emotional life of Christ’s Church, the healthy movement of the Church (i.e. moving in the right direction in our relationships with one another) – keeping the “joints” properly lubricated with the “oil of the Spirit,” those special areas of potential friction in our shared life in a local community of faith, where believers may not be in agreement on the direction in which the church should be moving. When we speak of Christ’s Church as an “Uncommon Community: A Fellowship Like No Other,” people may assume our life together in the Body of Christ brings with it a natural (or more accurately, “super-natural”) immunity to friction, disagreement, conflict, discord, and dissension.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, for we are still in the flesh, and as the Bible says, “the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We are still sinners, sinners “saved by grace” through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), and God isn’t finished with any of us yet. None of us have yet “arrived” (i.e. “reached the goal” of the Christian life, which is perfection, Christ-likeness – Philippians 3:12-14), but we are in our way, “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (i.e. to share Christ’s glory in Christ, vs. 14 – see also Romans 5:2). “Our citizenship is in heaven” (vs. 20), but for now we are still living on this earth in the weakness of the flesh. Therefore, we will not always be in agreement in Christ’s Church. There will be conflict, and the important question is, how are we going to deal with discord and dissension when we experience it in the Body of Christ? Friction is sometimes caused by Christians rubbing each other the wrong way, and it is the lubricating love of God that is sorely needed, enabling us as Christians to disagree without being disagreeable, without crippling the Body of Christ.
Why is it so difficult for us to be merciful, gracious, kind, tenderhearted, loving one another “with brotherly affection” (i.e. like members of the same family, the family of God), “accepting one another” without quarreling, without dissension, without dis-cord? Why is it so hard for us to follow the example of Jesus, to humble ourselves, to unwrap our emotions, to speak the truth in love, to be open with our feelings, sharing our hurts, our needs, our sorrows, to “weep with those who weep,” to even hug one another and “greet one another with a holy kiss” without any embarrassment, to ask for forgiveness, to seek reconciliation, to make restitution? Sometimes members of the Body of Christ do not even want to admit that any friction exists, but the grating is so obvious, especially in the decision-making parts of the body. Nevertheless, some members of the body hide their true feelings and play “Let’s Pretend”, until the tension and friction becomes so bad, the “joints” become so inflamed, that the body cannot function properly, or move in a new direction without even greater discomfort. Paul tells us how this can be avoided: “Love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honor….do not be haughty (i.e. insisting on our own way, refusing to support the other members of the body who are not in agreement with us)…Never be conceited….so far as it depends upon your, live peaceably with all (i.e. “be at peace with one another,” “live in harmony” with one another” – (Romans 12:10, 15-16, 18). Love calls us to serve one another (self-giving love – Galatians 5:13-15).
The opposite of love is not hate, it is selfishness! It is the refusal to support the majority, maintaining a critical and negative spirit, which creates dissension, division, cliques (i.e. a “party spirit”), quarreling, jealousy, contention, competition, factions. The Apostle Paul frequently warns against all these things when he lists the “sins of the spirit” and “the desires of the flesh” (Romans 1:29, 2:8; Philippians 1:17); I Corinthians 1:11, 3:3; Galatians 5:13-24). He gives us the solution to all these problems that can exist in the Body of Christ, the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-24), “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The Holy Spirit produces this “fruit” in the life of believers, including our shared life in Christ’s Church. We ourselves cannot produce it, we can only bear this fruit that the Holy Spirit produces, so that in our relationships with one another “righteousness” is experienced (i.e. “right relationships”…the result of being “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) and “controlled by the Spirit,” when the self has been “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20-21, 3:31)). It also has the meaning of being “spiritually disciplined” (Acts 24:25; I Corinthians 9:25; Titus 1:8), which must first be manifested in the relationships existing between pastors and lay leaders in every church (ie. Elders, Deacons, etc.), in relationships that honor Christ and edify the church.
As we read the New Testament, it is obvious that the relationship between Paul, the founder of many of the young churches during the apostolic age, and those who had been elected to office in those churches had infected those first century Christians. For example, the intimate and loving relationship he had with the Elders in the Ephesian Church. Listen to how Luke describes that relationship in the Acts of the Apostles: “They all wept and embraced Paul, and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the words he had spoken, that they would probably see his face no more” (Acts 20:36). Those tender words describe the emotional life of the Early Church, and are a model, even a mandate, for the contemporary Church, for all members of the Body of Christ who want to be more like those New Testament Christians — to be open and honest about their feelings, expressing their love for one another outwardly, being real and vulnerable. This is one of the greatest challenges before the Church in our time, when believers are so afraid to express their love for one another in such tangible ways, lest others misunderstand and misinterpret their actions, and some perhaps judge them harshly and even accuse them falsely.
Therefore, this dimension of shared life and love, of warmth, affection, tenderness, and intimacy that should exist between us as brothers and sisters in Christ, is too often conspicuously missing today. May God deliver us from our fears, and tear down all the walls that prevent so many of our churches from functioning as the Body of Christ should function. Listen to these words from a letter one woman wrote abut her church: “It’s strange, but no one hesitates touching a baby or hugging a stray dog, but I sit in church feeling so lonely sometimes, dying to have someone reach out to me, touch me, put their arm around me, and share the love of God with me; but no one does.”
PRAYER: Forgive us, Lord, for not trying to identify those in our congregations who need to know we care, for they never really feel loved. Church can be a lonely place, but we are called to be an uncommon community, a fellowship like no other, where no one feels ignored, neglected, and unloved. Forgive us for being more like Your frozen people, rather than your chosen people! Melt these cold hearts of ours, so we can love one another as You have loved us. AMEN.