The Church as the Infant Body of Christ: We’re Just Getting Started
I think we can all agree that the Church has been pretty ineffective in general at both sharing and living the gospel, and 2016 was probably one of our worst years on record.
If the measure of the Church is its ability to bind up the brokenhearted and seek justice in the earth, our record looks extra lame this year.
From the paranoid, truth-free politics of the U.S. election to our paralyzed gawking at slaughter and starvation in Syria, 2016 was pretty much a bust.
And when I say “the Church,” I mean that on all possible levels.
I mean the three specific congregations I have served this year, my diocese, the Episcopal Church USA, the Anglican Communion, worldwide Christianity and the Church Universal.
Actually, I basically mean everyone making some kind of effort to do right in the world, whether he or she takes on the label of “Christian” or not.
After all, Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
So we’re basically crap at our job.
Suffering is at an all time high.
There is an edge of despair in our society right now that seems to render “peace on Earth, goodwill toward all people,” a cruel mockery.
Add the veneer of “ho, ho, ho,” and “deck the halls” and it becomes almost grotesque.
What do we do?
Do we say, “Yes, the darkness is winning, so let’s just hole up in our own safe havens, building the walls around our minds and hearts as high as possible”?
Do we say, “We give up”?
Do we say, “Forget all of it, let’s eat, drink, and be merry”?
No. We are people of faith, and that means when the chips are down, we hang in there.
We don’t bail out. We dig in.
We search for hope and we keep looking until we find it.
We shine light in the darkness.
We take any and every small action of love we can, because every single one of them matters.
We need to remember who we are, and more than that, we need to re-learn who we are.
We are the Body of Christ.
That is a familiar doctrine that feels comfortable and routine.
But I think we need to reimagine that truth.
I think we have been surprisingly one-dimensional about that idea, and I think Christmas gives us an amazing and unique opportunity to see who we are and how we function in the midst of suffering in a new way that actually brings living hope.
When we talk about the gathered believers as the Body of Christ, what mental image does that generate for you?
When you hear “Body of Christ,” what do you see?
We have Paul’s discussion of the function of the different members, hands and noses and legs, corresponding to evangelism and healing and teaching, and so on.
That lends itself to our equating the Church, the Body of Christ, with Jesus during his three years of teaching and preaching.
So the Body of Christ image is an adult man in the prime of his life and ministry, teaching and healing and performing miracles of spiritual innovation and physical restoration right and left.
That’s absolutely what Jesus was for those three years, and it’s a powerful and exciting image for the Church’s work and life.
How great would it be if we really were able to realize that image?
Well, it seems pretty clear that we’re not. And I actually think we’ve been way too hard on ourselves about that.
That image of Jesus was actually Jesus at the end of his life.
He was at the pinnacle of his growth, his power, the full convergence of human and divine that was about to climax in his work of salvation.
We as the Body of Christ aren’t there, and that’s actually okay.
Because I hope we all believe that we as the Church are not at our full development, not at our pinnacle of growth and understanding.
We don’t have full enlightenment, complete communion with the Father.
That image of the Body of Christ corresponding with Jesus in the three years of his earthly ministry is actually incredibly narrow.
It’s Jesus standing on a rock with a clean robe and nice hair, with an adoring crowd gathered around him as he speaks.
That probably only happened for about twenty minutes on eight or ten different days each year he taught (especially the clean robe and nice hair part)(the adoring crowd part too, come to think of it, most of the time people were angry at him).
What about the rest of his life?
Was he not Christ, the Messiah, for the first thirty years before he expressed the fullness of his gifts?
So what if that’s true for us too?
It’s painful and difficult to believe that the Church is the Body of Christ when we see how very short we fall of what Jesus did in his years of active ministry.
But consider this. What if the Church, instead, is the Body of Christ at Christmas?
What if we are Christ’s Body at his birth, rather than near his death?
What if we as the Body of Christ are being born, and that’s where we’ve been for the last two thousand years?
Whoa, that opens things up in a new way, doesn’t it?
And it’s a lot truer to our experience, to the reality of who the Church is here and now.
As it’s been said, birth is always an unwilling process.
It means going from a warm, dark, safe place with no responsibilities and no problems, through a very narrow space where you are pushed and squeezed into a new shape, out into a loud, cold, hostile-feeling world. The first thing you do is scream.
Now that’s the experience of the Church I know!
Afraid, angry, confused at how we’re being asked to change, unsure of where we’re going and screaming at being forced out of our warm and comfortable space—that’s us!
We’re the infant Body of Christ!
And knowing that opens up a whole new world for us.
Because think about this—Jesus as the infant Christ Child was the Messiah even though he hadn’t done anything yet.
No teaching, no miracles—completely ineffective. And yet he still was the Christ.
And we still are the Body of Christ, even in our infancy. We may be completely ineffective, but that doesn’t change who we are.
And here is where we find hope.
Because the baby Jesus was something amazing: he was the purest potential that ever existed.
He was a living promise.
Everything that he was going to do, from healing and teaching and feeding the thousands, all the way through the Cross and the Resurrection, was held in potential in that tiny body, spirit, heart and mind.
It was all there, waiting to unfold.
And that is true of us!
We, the infant Body of Christ, even as we’re screaming and generating dirty diapers, are raw, untapped potential.
We, too, are a living promise.
We contain within us the potential for all of it—healing and teaching and feeding the thousands, the Cross and Resurrection itself.
We can’t access it now.
We can’t manifest it now.
But God will nurture and encourage and guide us through our immaturity until one day we’re following in Jesus’ footsteps with a faithfulness that really does bind up the brokenhearted and bring justice in the earth.
What an amazing, joyful truth!
Doesn’t that get you excited again about being part of the Body of Christ?
You’re only one cell of a tiny, squalling infant, immature and incapable, but you matter tremendously because you’re a part of the first steps of the growth of that infant.
The baby Body of Christ can’t do without you.
You are needed, your life and your growth and your works and your faith and your witness—they will all feed into that infant Body of Christ reaching childhood, adolescence, and one day, adulthood.
If the Church itself is to grow up into the full stature of Christ, it needs you, the cells of the infant Body, to give your all to its living and maturing.
So what does this truth ask of us? What is our call as the infant Body of Christ?
First, we have to admit our vulnerability.
At this stage of our life and growth, we do not have what it takes to do the great work we are called to do.
As an infant, we are helpless and dependent on our caregiver.
We need constant sustenance and care, and we also need constant guidance and teaching.
We must get in touch with that reality or we will never grow up.
We must be humble enough to admit we’re helpless, ignorant children.
If we continue to act like we as the Church have got all the answers and thus deserve all the power, we’re every bit the tantruming two-year-old who thinks he’s the center of the universe and wreaks destructive havoc on everything and everyone around him.
That’s actually a fairly accurate description of the Church from the Crusades right down through imperialism and colonialism to the racism and sexism that still rule us today.
But if we live as who we are—a baby who needs the care and feeding and loving guidance of our parent—then we can really start to grow.
If we open ourselves to God, our parent who loves us with a single-minded devotion, we won’t have to be that screaming, squirming infant who can see and know nothing but its own demand for comfort.
We can actually receive comfort from God, along with everything else we need to grow up.
We can rest in the knowledge that we are beloved and safe, and open ourselves to beginning the amazing journey that lies ahead of us, the journey to becoming the fully realized adult Body of Christ.
So now we have a whole new way to think about what it means to “celebrate Christmas all year round.”
The birth of Christ was a miracle, the miracle that changed the world.
And we, in our birth as the Body of Christ, are a miracle—an immature, ineffective miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.
This story is going somewhere.
This child Body of Christ is going to grow up and do amazing things, and we’re in on the very beginning of it.
God has trusted us to be the Christ’s Body in the world, and we have some growing up to do.
But when the darkness seems louder and crueler than ever, remember this: the Star in the East is pointing toward a newborn child.
And even as that child was originally one individual person, Jesus of Nazareth, now that child is the life of you, your neighbor, and all the faithful of every kind bound into one infant Body of Christ.
The Star in the East is pointing toward us.
Together, let us live a life worthy of the travellers who seek its light.
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