body of Christ

What’s the point of the church? Can’t I be spiritual on my own?

At our block party this week, a new friend and I were laughing about how coming out as a Jesus-follower might be one of the weirder things to do these days.  In her spiritual awakening, she was realizing that it might be more “normal” for her to choose from a variety of self-centered or even self-destructive hobbies than to become part of the church.

Our culture is selling a very privatized and individualistic religion these days.  It might be OK to like Jesus privately—after all, he was a good teacher and philosopher, and you’re entitled to your own “spiritual path”—but to talk about it and become part of a group that lives it seems extreme.  What’s the point of the church?  Can’t I just be spiritual on my own?

(RNS1-JULY 1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. For use with RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFER transmitted July 1, 2014. RNS photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman, Random House

I like how the German pastor & theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the church and lived it’s purpose.  As a citizen during the Nazi take-over, he could not reconcile complicity and silence and fear based on individualism with the call of Christ.  He was executed by Hitler’s regime, but not before starting a truth-telling, corporate (as in “body”) movement.  He described the church as the visible expression of Christ in the world.  We make Jesus known not by our personal holiness, necessarily, but by having a life together in love that people can see and enter.  Just as God came to us in Christ, demonstrating self-giving love, so we give ourselves to each other.  We have an actual life together.  To be a “spiritual free agent” is an oxymoron, because true spirituality binds people together in love.  The evidence of being spiritual is actual, active, practical, tangible love—not just a feeling or a cosmic, mystical “other” reality that can stay in our minds or “hearts”.   Love calls people together in real time and place. Love makes us an organic whole that is bigger than our individual selves.

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer explains more about the significance and preciousness of the church.  God came to us in Christ in a physical body, vulnerable to death and brokenness and disconnection. In dying and rising, he overcomes what the Bible writers describe as “the old man”/old person/old body—a.k.a our nature bent toward disconnection from God—and gives everyone an opportunity to receive a “new body.”  What is this new body?  Bonhoeffer describes how our new body is the church! The “new body” Jesus rises in is all those who trust him.  Faith in God is not just a chance for new life as an individual—it is an opportunity to live in oneness with others.

blockpartyshotCircle of Hope is about exercising that oneness in real time and place, and I think that our block party at 1125 S. Broad this week was a glimpse of its goodness.  The team had fun hanging out with neighbors and new friends all day, and we had trouble convincing some that the burgers, hotdogs, and water ice were indeed FREE.  Listening to conversations and laughter over water games and face-painting and balloon popping, I felt joy in being a safe place to connect.  In spite of our struggles, I hope we keep believing Jesus when he says: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5)

Being light doesn’t make us better than anyone else; it makes us who we were created to be: ordinary people who have peace with God and love to share.  Together we are a “new body”—-the body of Christ.  The trap of individualism comes from a materialist philosophy that holds that the physical world is all there is, so we’d all just better look out for ourselves.  But love enables us to enter directly into the world’s suffering with the restorative power of God, and we become whole together.

Too sick to pray

Willie Nelson wrote a song called Too Sick to Pray that describes how a lot of my friends are feeling right now.  Depression, anxiety, injuries and illness, addiction, jobs and bosses, families or the lack of them, are difficult.  When you can’t even walk on the sidewalks because they are so icy and the winter storms keep coming, life can feel even harder.  My friends are wise enough to know there is a spiritual element to our struggle, too.  The living God is inviting us to make a vital connection, and sometimes we can’t get there.

solar systemMy cell group discovered a secret again last week: that the gravity of God’s love can hold us together beyond our individual abilities to stay in any particular orbit.  We imagined floating in outer space, individually feeling at times like we’re drifting off into darkness and nothingness, and then realizing that we’re actually in a path with others, gently and invisibly held in orbit around the sustaining light of Christ.  We talked openly about our struggles then, and imagined how we could even imitate God in the midst of the darkness.   Here are three ideas:

1. Acknowledge entropy.  The world is adept at entropy: the gradual decline into disorder, deterioration, degeneration, degradation, decomposition, & collapse.  I’m not going for the full thermodynamic definition here, but a lot of good relationships and ideas and projects and organizations and governments end up this way: in decline and separation.  Lent is a good time to notice the fear and laziness that makes us entropy-prone. 

2. Be carried by the faith of others when you can’t see your own.  When it’s healthy, the body of Christ works a lot like a healthy physical body. When one part is sick, the other parts carry it and help bring it to healing.  We bear one another’s burdens. We suffer together and become whole.  Just showing up to a meeting can help us sense the safety and encouragement of the body we are a part of, even when we are disconnected.  We get gently surrounded by the love of God and reminded of who we really are: beloved of God and significant to others.

3.  Keep talking.  One of our convictions as a Circle of Hope is that dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity.  Verbalizing our struggles brings them into the light.  Opening up gives us a chance to know and support one another.  This is how we grow and expand.  Communication in love creates gravity and mutuality that can overcome entropy.

In Christ, we get into an orbit that holds things together in love.  We get into something lasting, and become the presence of the future.  The power of the Spirit is greater than the powers of entropy.   Together we generate gravity that is strong enough to include our sin-sick selves, and others.   Even in our struggle we can reflect the love of God and shine.