We’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about finding ourselves, and that search begins with finding ourselves in God. He is the center and the foundation of that search for meaning and purpose. And until we truly understand ourselves in relationship with him, everything else will be, as Solomon described it “a chasing after the wind.”
This morning I want to explore our identity and purpose as we find ourselves in the church, the body of Christ.
I realize that for a lot of us church is a place we show up on Sunday morning for an hour of religious activity. But that’s not how the Bible defines the church. In the Bible, church is not a place you go, but who you are. You are church, everyone of you. Not just the folks who attend regularly, or the folks who give generously – all of you. Whether you are here 52 Sundays a year, or once in a blue moon, you are still church.
You see church isn’t defined as an organization, but an organism. If you’re just a member of an organization, you can come and go and you’ll be missed, but the organization will go on just fine, with or without you there. But an organism is different. When Paul describes the church as a body, he says every part is important and needed and the body won’t function properly without you. Listen to his description in 1 Corinthians 12: The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor 12:12-27)
As the church, we are connected to one another, not by an organizational structure, but by the blood of Christ. We were baptized by the Spirit into one body. And whether you are an ear or an eye or a nose or a hand or a foot, you are not interchangeable with anyone else. You can’t, in arrogance say “I’m more important than you.” But neither can you, in self-deprecation say “The body doesn’t need me.” Whatever part you are, you are vitally important to the healthy functioning of the body.
And if one member stops functioning, it may seem inconsequential at the moment, but the vital health of the body is jeopardized. The aorta might say, “I’m the superhighway of the blood stream – I’m the most important part of the body,” but what if the capillaries, the tiniest blood vessels shut down? Gangrene would soon set in. The brain says “I’m the nerve center that tells everything else what to do,” but if the liver quits functioning or the appendix bursts, you’ll be in a world of hurt. Literally, “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” In the body of Christ, the preacher might think he’s the most important member because the spotlight’s always on him, but if Bob quits cleaning the baptistry, or Dennis quits vacuuming the auditorium, or Barb quits preparing communion, we’ll know it.
We can’t function without each other. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, he spelled this out: It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph 4:11-16)
In order for the body of Christ to grow up and be healthy and strong, every part must do its work.
Now, let’s talk about your search to find yourself. You can’t do that search in isolation, and you can’t exempt yourself from your place in the body of Christ without affecting all of the rest of us. We need you and you need us. We are, in this picture of the church, symbiotic. The word “symbiotic” has Greek roots: sym (with) and bios (life) – thus, life together. And that’s exactly how the NT describes the early church – they shared life together.
If you are going to find yourself, it will be in the body of Christ. That doesn’t mean you lose yourself in this bland, homogeneous, nondescript group of people. No. In fact, in the body of Christ, you become all that you were created to be with your unique gifts and talents and abilities.
In that very passage in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul was talking about the body of Christ, it was in the context of using your gifts that have been given by the Holy Spirit. Listen again: Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant… There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Cor 12:1,4-11)
When Paul wrote to the Roman church, he had the same message: Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:4-8)
You find yourself when you discover what it is you love to do. But even more than that, you find who you were created to be when you use what you love to do to glorify God and bless the body of Christ with health and growth.
When Paul told the Corinthian Christians, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” he was telling them that they couldn’t look at themselves as isolated, disconnected, autonomous beings anymore. Their identity was intimately connected to God. And what they did reflected on him.
As you can imagine, that went against everything the Greeks believed. They believed they could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted and it wasn’t anybody else’s business. No, wait a minute – that’s what we believe. I guess things don’t change much. We think of ourselves as independent, self-sufficient, self-reliant people. We don’t think we need anybody, we don’t want to be dependent on anybody, and we don’t think what we do affects anybody but me.
And that may be the American spirit, but that’s not the Spirit of God. We cannot find ourselves if we’re looking on an island populated by one. God created us to be connected with each other intimately. As I’ve said many times, we are not a random collection of individuals who happened to show up at the same place at the same time on a Sunday morning. We’re here because we belong to each other and we are connected to each other by the blood of Jesus. We share our lives with each other, and so when we come together as the church we are saying, “this is who I am.”
And if you’re holding back, you’re missing out. And if you come, not wanting anything more than a little religious seasoning on your already full life, my heart breaks for you, because you’re missing out on the best stuff.
There was a man in Corinth who had gotten sucked into sin. He was sleeping with his father’s wife. It was something even the pagans looked down on (and if you know anything about ancient Corinth, that’s saying something). And he didn’t care what anybody thought and wasn’t about to change. And he kept coming to church. And it was bringing disgrace on the church and they patted themselves on the back and thought they were being grace- filled by not confronting him and hurting his feelings.
They wrote to Paul and asked, “What can we do?” And he wrote back: “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:2-5)
Fast forward a year. The church did put the man out of the church and withdrew their fellowship from him. And so Paul wrote back in 2 Corinthians and said, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:6-8)
Why did Paul counsel them to withdraw their fellowship and why did he tell them to reinstate him? It’s because the church really meant something in this man’s life and when it was taken away from him, it made him realize what he was losing by continuing in his sin. But the only reason that kind of church discipline would work is if they practiced real fellowship in the first place.
Today, if the church were to withdraw fellowship from a member for public, persistent sin, it probably wouldn’t accomplish anything, because we don’t practice the kind of fellowship that means anything if you lose it. In fact, they would probably just go down the road and find another church that wouldn’t care.
And that begs the question – would it mean anything if the church were taken away from you? What would you lose? Is your identity so wrapped up in the body of Christ that if it were taken away, it would break your heart to lose it?
Now, far away from the subject of church discipline, it still begs the question – are we practicing the kind of fellowship that means so much to people that they can find themselves here in the body? If not, why not?
It’s costly – it demands our time, our energy; it demands that we invest ourselves in each other’s lives. It’s costly because it is valuable. I believe it is the one thing we all hunger for deep inside and would give anything to find it. And of all the places we ought to be able to find it, it’s in the church.