This seems like as good a time as ever to pause in our exploration of The Apostles’ Creed and remind ourselves of something we talked about in the first week of this series: that is, what we mean when we say, “I believe.” 5 weeks ago, we established that belief is not primarily about agreeing in your mind that something exists; belief is about trust. This is more obvious on a night like tonight, when we are saying, “I believe in the church.” You could say, “I believe in the church” and someone else might agree, “Yes, the church does indeed exist.” But of course, that’s not what we’re talking about. When we say, “I believe in the church,” we are, in some way, saying, “I trust the church.”
For many of you, that is no problem. You grew up in the church; church has always been home; there has never been anywhere else that loved or accepted you better. But for others, to say, “I trust the church” might make you cringe a little. Perhaps you’ve been hurt or rejected by the church. Perhaps you want to know which church in particular you’re saying you trust. Maybe you’re very comfortable saying that you trust in God but not so sure about the institution of the church.
Research shows that trust in church leaders and institutions is at an all-time low in America. It is not hard to see why. We have heard the stories of pastors asking their church to raise $60 million so they can buy a jet. We know all about the sexual abuse cases that have rocked the Catholic church (though let me remind you that is not a solely Catholic problem). Even without a big scandal to point to, there is a general sense among many Americans that “the church” is not to be trusted.
Of course, the question is, what do they mean by “the church”? What do we mean by “the church”? For many people, that just means a building. “I’m going to church” usually means that you’re going to a physical place. A lot of people so closely associate the pastor of a church with that congregation’s identity that “the church” might mean “the pastor,” or at least “this pastor’s church.” Centenary might be “Lory Beth’s church.”
And buildings are important. I tend to be anti-establishment and am all about missions over mortar, but I truly love sacred architecture. My favorite college class was on Gothic cathedrals. The place that is the physical “church” matters deeply. Space, design, light, symbolism, flow—all of it can contribute to or hinder worship and ministry.
And pastors are important, too. I’d better think so! Although all people are called by God to their own ministry, some are called to be ordained—not because they’re better than anyone else, but because they are “set aside” for particular work. The church needs leadership and guidance in many forms, and clergy can offer that in unique ways.
If the church is a building or a pastor or an institution, it is easy to see why trust might be difficult. Some could look at Centenary’s big, beautiful building and wonder whether its creation was the best use of resources. They might ask if a pastor is really representing Christ in the world as well as he or she could. And the institution of church? Some would say you can add it to the long list of big institutions that do not deserve our confidence in this day and age.
But the building, the pastor, and the institution are not the church. They are important tools in building up the church, but they are not the church. You can say, “Come to church!” and have people walk in the doors, but just coming on up to the house is not always the same thing as really encountering the church.
I love the words to the hymn “We Are the Church”—the first verse says, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.”
“The church is a people.” And not just a random collection of people—the church is a body. I love this image in Scripture that we are a body. It makes me think about the human body, how dumbfoundingly, miraculously complex it is, how all its parts are intricately and seemingly impossibly woven together.
All the parts serve a purpose, even the ones we don’t see or think about or find interesting or important. This morning in staff devotions, I asked people to think about what part of the body they would be, and mine was the thyroid. I’m not sure I knew much, if anything, about the thyroid until I started having problems with mine about 10 years ago. Turns out this seemingly insignificant little gland plays an important role in emotional and physical health.
Every part of the body, from the head to the feet to the stomach to the thyroid, has its place, and we aren’t always right in our assumption about what is and isn’t important. I’ve told our Thursday group this, but when I was in middle school, I distinctly remember our youth director talking about this. The example he used was that, in his words, “Someone has to be the butt of the body.” Doesn’t sound terribly dignified, isn’t a body part we hold in very high esteem unless we’re objectifying women, and we’re not doing that, right?—but without a butt, you couldn’t sit in a chair or drive a car or box out someone for a rebound.
Every part of the body has its purpose. In the same way, every person in the body of Christ has their place and their purpose—they belong.
We mess this up in 2 ways that our passage for tonight tells us about: 1. We tell people that we don’t need them. Countless churches, explicitly or implicitly, have told countless people that they don’t need them. Gays and lesbians, black and Latinos, immigrants and the poor and women and the elderly, the mentally ill and addicted, doubters and people of other faiths. We, the church, have at many times said to these and many more: “I have no need of you.”
The other way that we mess this up is: 2. We believe that we are not needed. We say that if we do not have a particular call, if we feel like we don’t have it all together, if we are guilty or ashamed or uncertain or in need, we think, “I do not belong to the body.” We allow our brokenness and our fear to keep us from being what we already are, or we believe that we do not belong because we are a thyroid or a butt instead of a head or a hand.
But we already are the body. Right here, right now, in all places and at all times, you are the body. You are the church. Modern Christians like to look at this passage and ask how we might become the body of Christ, but that’s not really what Paul is saying here. He’s saying, “You are the body of Christ. Believe it and act like it.
Whenever you say, “I believe in the church,” you are saying, “I am the church.” The building, the pastor, and the institution are there, not to be the church for you, but to make facilitate transformative ministry.
And the other key piece of the body metaphor is that church is not something we can do alone. There is an old story of a man who had stopped going to church and was spending most of his time alone in his house. The pastor went to visit him and found him sitting by a fire. The man welcomed him, and the pastor came in and had a seat but said nothing. As they sat, the pastor moved to the fire, took a pairs of tongs and removed a single ember. He set it off to one side of the hearth.
The two men continued to sit in silence, watching the ember that had been pulled out of the fire. In a matter of minutes, the ember’s glow faded, and it grew cold while the fire blazed on. The man turned to the pastor and said, “Thank you for that sermon. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
I am the church. You are the church. We are the church—together. No one is not needed, and everyone belongs.
We are the body. We are the church. Let’s all come together and act like it.
Sarah S. Howell