In the Christian faith, the Church is often considered "The Body of Christ". As the church, we embody Christ. Saint Paul (earlier Saul) before his conversion on the Damascus Road was a strong persecutor of the very early church. When he encountered Jesus Christ on the road, Jesus said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (Acts 9:4, my italics.) In persecuting church people, Saul/Paul had been persecuting Christ. Often we speak of the church as representing Christ in the world ... and showing Christ to the world.
Unfortunately, we realize that often the church does a poor job of being the embodiment of Christ. Not only do we poorly reflect the image of Christ, we present this distorted image to the world. We are too aware: Abusing priests along with their authorities who sweep such behaviors under the carpet. Individual churches "dis-fellowshipped" because they cannot in good faith follow dictates of a denomination. Holy Communion withheld because a divorcée has remarried. Church members marginalized or shunned because they don't fit the general cultural or political ethos of most of the congregation. We can think of many other examples.
But, I'd like to reflect on some personal instances, just three of many, where the church acted like a Christ-filled church. Instances where I thought my church did behave like the Body of Christ.
While the stories and the people are real, I've changed the names of many of those involved.
Joe and Cindy Ash with their three children were stalwarts in our American Baptist Church in Wyoming. Christmas at church would not seem complete without Joe singing "Sweet Jesus Boy" on Christmas Eve. Cindy could be counted on for anything having to do with hospitality. Joe owned a small contracting business; Cindy worked part-time at the school and served on the town council. A great family, hard workers, committed to our church.
One Saturday morning, this story spread quickly through our small town: Cindy had run off with the mayor to Las Vegas! No one, not even Joe, saw this coming. A couple days of wondering spread into six weeks, and everyone knew it was no rumor: this had really happened. Wyoming is a pretty accepting place -- a bit anything goes. So, although there was little condemnation, you might imagine this was the talk of our small town. Our church family felt hurt, betrayed, distraught, not knowing how to help.
About as suddenly as the shocking news had spread, one Friday morning new news hit the streets: Cindy was back in town and at home! Everyone wondered. Next Sunday, our church, which had a usual service attendance of about 150, was a bit fuller. Would the Ash family be there?
They were there ... in their usual spot near the middle. An atmosphere of wondering and nervousness filled the air. The pastor opened the service with the usual welcome and invitation for anyone to share briefly their Concerns Or Celebrations. Before anyone else had a chance, Joe's baritone voice boomed, "I'll have some of that celebration stuff!" There was great spontaneous applause ... and few dry eyes. Not applause of condoning what had happened, but celebration of what was happening. While I'm sure the Ashes talked much with their pastor and with each other, I don't recall the tough six weeks ever being mentioned within the congregation from that day on.
I can have trouble getting my head around things like forgiveness and mercy. I can understand, but they can seem abstract, just nice words. Tests of my personality suggest I can truly grasp the abstract, but that I need something concrete to lead me into really getting it. That Sunday, because a church acted like the church, I think I got a glimpse of what stuff like mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation really are. And, because of this concrete example played out in our small Wyoming church, I have a firmer understanding of what God's mercy and forgiveness are really like. Joe and Cindy, the pastor, and our congregation continue, for me, to be real faces of the gift of reconciliation.
Another Baptist church, this time here in Pennsylvania. Concerns and Celebrations time again. After a few had shared, Frank and Fred walked up front to the mike. Frank: "Today we want to celebrate our 25 years of being together in a committed relationship." Like in Wyoming, warm applause and a couple cheers. Then with tears and in a choking voice, Fred added, "And you don't know how special it is to be part of a faith community where we can stand up here and celebrate this with you." And, as in the Wyoming church, few dry eyes.
A praise hymn we sing in my current church home repeats the line, "I am accepted." I don't know that I've ever felt totally unaccepted; maybe a few times not really welcomed, but generally I feel accepted. However, through Frank and Fred that Sunday morning, I have a vivid sense of what it must feel like for the often-rejected to feel truly accepted. Because that church, through its practices and policies chose to act out its understanding of what it means to reflect the Body of Christ, Frank and Fred — and I — can know what it means to be accepted by God.
This spring, my wife Rose, had hip replacement surgery. For both of us, it was special to be part of our current congregation, which also tries to reflect its role as the Body of Christ. The Sunday prior to surgery, many in church surrounded her with good wishes and promises of prayer. Two of the priests came to the pew to give her a blessing. In the recovery room after surgery, a parishioner who is also a nurse was smiling down at Rose when she awoke. A deacon and another friend were in the hospital room that evening for companionship and prayer.
During her week in the hospital, the church was present with us through visits and phone calls. The third night, some serious complications developed. Another church friend was visiting, and immediately she initiated a prayer chain. Rose recovered and went to a rehab facility. Again visits and calls from the congregation and communion served by church folk who came to visit (and much appreciated meals for me!); the same later during recuperation at home. While Rose recuperated at home, at church I felt surrounded by the love of questions, good wishes to convey, and prayers. On her return, there was such a warm sense of being welcomed back to church, back to the Body of Christ
Sometimes, stories like Rose's do not have the prayed-for outcome. In those cases, the church is also present for consolation and the celebration of life and the resurrection in Christ through a funeral service. Through it all, the church tries to act like the Body of Christ, doing so through the gift of presence.
It may not seem like much, just something minor: the church simply being present. But, when you look at it from a bit better angle, it can mean everything. Because my church strives to live out the call to be The Body of Christ, I have a tangible understanding of the comforting words of Jesus, "Lo, I AM with you always."Gospel of Matthew 28:20.
These are only three of the real ways I have felt the church demonstrating its call to embody and reflect Christ. My mind is filled with many others. Perhaps you can recall stories of your own. Even better, if you're in a church small group, telling such stories can be a meaningful experience. I think we should celebrate these moments. Not celebrate to brag or hold ourselves up as something special. But, celebrating and telling the stories of "getting it right" can reinforce what we should be, want to be, and motivate us to continue to strive to reflect Christ. As we do so, however, we'd be remiss if we don't consider those times we've missed chances to reflect Christ, or ways we may have poorly represented the image of Christ.
When others look at us; when others look at our church: do they see a reflection of Christ? A devotional book I use each morning (Common Prayer), contains a prayer that seems to grasp the essence of the church reflecting Christ. The prayer speaks of what we should fear:
Lord, if we are to be afraid of anything, let it be the fear of not committing ourselves fully to you. Let us fear that the day will pass without our having lightened the load of another. Let us fear that someone will come looking for you ... and only find us. Amen.From Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Shane Claiborne et al.; Zondervan, 2010. Quoted prayer found in liturgy for November 5; pp 509-510. (Bold mine.)