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Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Is Church Necessary?

1 Corinthians 12:4-27

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Matthew 16:13-19

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

          In 1797, villagers in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France, began noticing a wild boy, about ten years old, who lived in the forest. About three years later the boy emerged from the woods and allowed himself to be taken in by the people of the town. A young doctor adopted him, named him Victor, and began to teach him speech and human customs. The Wild Boy of Aveyron, as he came to be known, became the most famous of many cases of feral children, as educators, theologians, and philosophers debated what makes a human being a human being. How do we become who we are? How much of our identity is due to our heredity, how much to our environment, and how much to our training and education? In Victor's case, he lived to about the age of forty, learned to function at a very childlike level, but never learned to speak. Other feral children over the years -- including cases like Danielle Crockett, who was found in 2007 at the age of seven locked in a dirty diaper-filled room in Tampa Bay, Florida -- have great difficulty overcoming the deficits of affection and training in the early years of their lives. Allegedly, in the 13th Century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II ordered a group of infant orphans to be raised by nuns without ever hearing speech, to determine whether the natural human language imprinted by God was Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Aramaic. It turned out, according to the monk Salimbene di Adam, who chronicled the story, to be babble.
When female sea turtles are ready to lay their eggs, they crawl up on a beach, dig a hole, lay the eggs, cover them with sand, and then crawl back into the ocean.  About two months later the eggs hatch, the baby turtles dig their way out of the sand and crawl to the water to swim away.  They never know their mothers, and all they ever know is imprinted in their DNA.  But human beings aren't sea turtles.  It takes years and years of nurture to develop emotional and intellectual intelligence.  Mind you, that learning doesn't end at eighteen, or twenty-one, or at sixty.  My great teacher Julian Hartt used to say, To be is to become, to the last breath. 
Human beings were created for community:  we depend on each other.  The biggest argument I ever got in with my step-father -- and that is saying something -- was the time we were sitting at the dinner table in his home in the Washington suburbs, and he declared that he was one of the most self-sufficient people he knew.  I told him that was one of the most asinine things I'd ever heard, which did not make him happy.  "Did you build this house, or kill and clean this turkey, or make your own clothes, or generate your own electricity for heat, or build your own car?" I asked.  "You're an insurance agent, whose income comes from other people buying your product, paying you money you didn't print.  You're one of the least self-sufficient people I've ever met."  It went downhill from there.
If we are dependent upon others for emotional nurture and for intellectual development, why in the world would anyone think it is any less true that we are created needing community for our spiritual lives?  Christian faith, to paraphrase a political commentator, is a team sport.  When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he says two commandments are inseparable:  to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves.  The first letter of John says that anyone who says he loves God and hates his neighbor is a liar.  And St. Paul says, in this morning's lesson, that the community of believers, gathered together, is Christ's body in the world.  No believer, by him or herself, can possibly be the body of Christ, because we are all given differing gifts and functions.  I can preach and teach, but I can't count money.  But Judy Savage can't play piano or sing in the choir.  And Grace Fulcher and Dianne Jordan can't fix the roof or the plumbing.  And Ray Bassetti can't cook liver and onions or make a key lime pie.  And Doris Parsley and Kathleen Shultz can't run the youth program.  Now, which of these is most important  -- other than Kathleen and Doris?  The eye cannot say to the hand "I have no need of you."
Faith in Christ is a team sport.  We learned how to follow Jesus from parents and teachers and preachers and friends who taught and preached and counseled and modeled discipleship for us.  We read the Bible, written and copied by many people over a long period of time.  We study commentaries and read books reflecting thousands of years of understanding.  We sing songs and pray prayers written by others and handed down over centuries or over a few weeks.  When life slams us upside the head, when our faith fails and our hearts break, we are held and loved and fed and encouraged by our church family.  And when we fall away and break our vows and shoot ourselves in the foot, we are admonished and corrected and held accountable by our church family, all so that when we are strong and our brother or sister is weak, we can do the same for them.  And, perhaps most importantly, we teach each other how to be wrong right:  we confess that we are imperfect people in need of God and of each other.  We forgive each other and work together to make amends.  Of course the church is full of broken, flawed people.  That's the whole point.  We cannot be whole by ourselves, because we're not made that way.  We are not sea turtles.  This is a team sport.
When Peter makes his confession of faith to Jesus -- our gospel lesson -- that Jesus is God's Son, the Messiah, Jesus says that the church will be built upon that confession.  The church:  not private religious conviction, not a philosophy or a theology, but the church.  And, Jesus goes on, that ekklesia -- the called out -- will act in congruence with heaven, binding -- drawing people into covenant -- and loosing -- setting people free from all that enslaves them.  As Adam Hamilton says, the church is God's chosen plan for the salvation of the world. 
Is church necessary?  Don't ask me, ask God.  And, according to the New Testament and, indeed, the whole Bible, God's answer is an absolute yes.  If you're going to follow Jesus, this is the place Jesus said to do it from.

An English priest went one wintry night to visit a parishioner who had been absent from church for a long time.  They sat in front of the blazing coal fire in the man's house and talked a long while.  "I'm sorry, Father," said the inactive church member, "but I don't think I need to go to church to be a good person.  I can worship God just as well at home as I can sitting in a pew."  The priest said nothing, but stretched out his boot and drew two red hot coals away from the fire and out onto the hearth.  After a few minutes, the coals cooled and darkened, until the priest finally reached out with his hand, picked them up, and tossed them back into the fire.  In a short time the coals began to glow again, until they were burning brightly.
After a long silence, the parishioner said, "Father, I'll see you Sunday morning in church."

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