The violence of undoing the safety and wholeness of communities of belonging and identity is a legacy we are confronting afresh as a church in these days and one we need mention and face every time we gather. As we think together about the faith formed in and by communities this week, we do so with heightened grief and repentance, knowing all that what we are holding up among us as good was systematically and intentionally destroyed by the very Body about which we speak today.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be made right and just by your Spirit, O God our strength, our judge, and our redeemer. Amen.
The instructions to the early church were incredibly simple. Honestly, they sound like what might be written on a note stuck to the fridge: spend time together; eat together; make sure everyone has what they need, including if they need something of yours; be grateful to God and good to everyone. It’s a blueprint for friendship and generosity. It’s the kind of list you want to pin to every child’s chest before they go off into the world. A few guideposts so they know how to find community and how to make it. A community is something we wish for every one because when we’re in the safe company of others, we have what we need to remember who we are. Maybe that was the apostle’s thinking too: to create the kind of community in which people remember who they are.
According to the record in the book of Acts, that blueprint has been pinned to the chest of the church for nearly two thousand years.
Because of it, the church, at its best, has remembered who it is – not because of the text itself, or the creeds and confessions it inspired – but because of the way the community carried the memory in itself. Bodies contain memories as much as written records do. But you know that. It’s your hands that remember how to play the piano, your feet that remember the steps, your wrists that remember the weight of the dough, your heart that remembers that it loves the framed face on the dresser.
The Apostle Paul must have known this or he would have given the first Christians a creed. He didn’t; he gave the community things to do and ways to do them. Because we become what we do, Paul chose those actions carefully before he pinned the instructions to our chests. Paul was intentionally forming a church by choreographing communities that would remember Jesus – remember Him in their bodies. Or more accurately, remember Him in the body they became together.
In her novel, Fugitive Pieces, author Anne Michaels writes, “I don’t know what the soul is. But I believe our bodies are wrapped around something that has always been here.”
I taught in a theological school for many years, and every year I began the class in congregational ministry with that quote.
People who feel called to serve the church, as my students did, and as many of you do, have an intuitive sense of being part of a body wrapped around something that has always been here, something eternal. Where Anne Michaels’ is speaking of a single human body; the church imagines a collective one – a great swath of human lives, collected over time and space, stretching itself around the soul of the living Christ.
As familiar as this image is, for those whose centre of gravity of faith is elsewhere, it makes very little sense. It’s even a bit suffocating. Having Jesus in your heart might make sense, being the hands and feet of Christ in the world might make sense, even being one with all things could make sense. But being part of a shared body – a communion of saints past and present, known and unknown, moving its many limbs in concert – is something that only makes sense to those with a faith that comes to life by sharing what’s pinned to the heart of the church.
For them – maybe for you – without the Body of Christ wrapping its human communities around the Spirit of Christ, there would be a hole in the heart of the universe.
I have had a vocation of hearing testimonies of faith. I cannot tell you how many stories I have heard of finding faith, losing faith, struggling with faith and choosing faith. Sometimes the church has a starring role in these stories, but very seldom. The more likely stars are the rugged individuals who overcome adversity through faith, or the unlikely person who did great things for others because of their faith, or the would-be prophet who helped bend the arc of history toward justice by way of faith. All these are stories you know. Maybe one of them is yours.
The lesser known stories are the ones about people whose lives are saved by something as apparently ordinary as a congregation – stories, like Carol’s, of the way a love that bears all things is blessed, broken and shared with the countless children, youth, adults and families who over the millennia have found their way across the threshold of a church and into the community of God, a body wrapped around the spirit of Christ.
Under the busy surface of congregational life, there is a holy wholeness, a koinonia (to use the Greek term). The soul of Christ could have been lodged in greatness but settled instead deep in the sinews of the ordinary communities we call Christian congregations, transforming them into little koinonias of grace, tethered to the long story a covenanted people, and alive with ordinary gestures of extraordinary love.
If we didn’t know it before the pandemic, we certainly know now that among the things least seen and least valued in our world are things like caring for the elderly, and teaching the young, putting food on the table, and keeping the place clean. In congregations, those activities go by names like hospitality and pastoral care committee, stewardship, property and maintenance, Sunday school and youth group. That they aren’t more highly regarded has to do with what society values, more than what the apostle had in mind for the way Christian communities would form themselves around the soul of Christ. He imagined communities doing exactly that, creating, as Family Minister Jen Cunning put it so tenderly, places where “people cared, and taught, and loved, and served.”
That these simple gestures create the home of God among us is hard to believe. Maybe that’s why we got a bit carried away – built cathedrals and ordained priests. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with either of these but they do indicate a bit of insecurity about whether a little koinonia of generosity, prayer and welcome is enough to call the house of God or the Body of Christ. But it is, in fact, enough. Feeling enough is a difficult thing to accept for those with ecclesial faith in a time of church decline. Driving themselves to be more – to be appealing to the disinterested as well as loyal to the invested – is exhausting the beautiful souls who love God through being the koinonia. You know that because there’s a good chance I’m talking about you.
That might be why the Apostle Paul was dedicated to a ministry of encouragement. Not because the koinonia work is so complicated, maybe because it is so ordinary that we forget that by the grace of God, the simple anatomy of ordinary congregations means they somehow borrow and become, release and reveal, a piece of Christ’s soul in the world. But they do.
No, Paul’s encouragement wasn’t because this is difficult. His encouragement was because it is necessary – necessary because there is such the fear and distrust and loneliness in the world; such hatred and need. Such brokenness in the world and in us. And we have inherited a choreography of actions that can only be performed as one body. In the face of fear, we can create a place to foster faith in the goodness of God. In the face of distrust, we can open the table to everyone, pass the bread and the cup as if we were siblings because we are. In the face of loneliness, we can learn one another’s names, sit in one another’s company, bless one another’s homes and speak one another’s language. In the face of such violent hatred of difference, we can make difference ITSELF the very thing that binds us to one another: unlike to unlike, a body-made-of-difference. In the face of need, we can collect and redistribute what we have, inventing economies of love.
It is from Paul’s own pen that we were given the encouragement of the metaphor of the Body; he pinned that to our chest for the same reason he pinned the instruction sheet: so we might remember who we are. We, the baptized multitudes millennia after millennia, are Christ’s body.
Remembering this identity is the heart of ecclesial faith – the heart that beats not in each person’s chest but in the great collective corpus of the Body of Christ – gathering each of us into the One Body that shares the one loaf and the one cup.
No wonder for them receiving communion by zoom feels like swimming on a carpet – it is simply not possible be part of the Body of Christ without other bodies around you, reminding you of who you are. You are the koinonia, the Body made of bodies, configuring Christ’s very being through the gestures you have learned by heart, generation after generation – spending time together, teaching and praying, eating and serving, giving thanks and doing good.
I think this is why this well-rehearsed remembrance of Jesus’ last supper is known as a sacrament. If we’re not sure what a sacrament is – it’s this. It’s the memory of who we are coming to us through what we do: the memory that we are the body of Christ.
Remember, Jesus said, that bread breaks, just like I did. It breaks like some dreams do, and some commitments, breaks like some bodies do and some hearts. Take what is broken, Jesus said, share it, make it part of my Body.
Remember, Jesus said, that a cup fills, just like I did. Fills and fibers you with the promise that I am with you. You were made to fill and be filled, made to share me with one another, to belong to one another in me.
Take the bread and the cup: it is a piece of someone’s grief, a portion of someone’s joy; remember the Body we become together; take and eat, bless and serve, rejoice and be glad.
It is not we who form the koinonia, but Christ. It is we, together, who rehearse and remember it, wrap our lives around the memory of it. For the sake of all who seek the living Christ, it is we who by the grace of God, become his broken and beloved Body, become his Body together.
May it be so. Amen.