Author Topic: The Body of Christ (Oct. 2004)  (Read 1130 times)

Richard Johnson

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The Body of Christ (Oct. 2004)
« on: October 15, 2004, 12:38:57 PM »
The Body of Christ

Last spring I had the remarkable experience of teaching American church history for Fuller Theological Seminary’s extension program. Fuller is an independent evangelical seminary, though both its history and its present program has a distinctly Presbyterian cast. In this class of thirty, about half were Presbyterians of one sort or another; the rest included a Lutheran, a United Methodist, and several varieties of Baptists, Holiness church people, and Pentecostals. It was, to put it mildly, a rather different experience from a Lutheran seminary.

As we got into the twentieth century, we had a fascinating conversation about the early Pentecostal movement. One man in the class, a former Roman Catholic now a Presbyterian, commented that he had absolutely no clue about Pentecostals, about speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts that are highly valued in that tradition. “I mean,” he asked (rather naively, I thought), “is there anyone here who has actually spoken in tongues?”

Another student, a woman who is herself a Pentecostal, replied, with a bit of an edge in her voice, that she had almost dropped out of the seminary a year ago because another student had made disparaging and sarcastic remarks about speaking in tongues. She said had been terribly offended. It was one of those moments in class (and in a class this diverse, it wasn’t the first one!) when you can feel the pain of division and difference among Christians.

Her comment just sat there for a moment, and I realized that I needed to respond to her. I said that one of the reasons for taking a class like this is to help us understand the incredible diversity within the Body of Christ, and to learn to appreciate and even love the differences between us. And then I put it this way (and I think the Holy Spirit must have been giving me these words): If we truly believe that the Church is the Body o fChrist, then to love the Church in all its various manifestations is to love Christ. And the more we learn to love the Church — even or especially those parts of it that are so different from us, different in behavior or different in belief — the more we learn to love Christ. Then, thank goodness, it was time for a break.

A parishioner recently put it in a more earthy but rather Pauline way: “I’ve often marveled over the fact that my eye has absolutely nothing in common with my big toe — except that they’re both part of the body.” So often we use that body metaphor to talk about differing functions, all working together. But his comment helped me see that it isn’t just about functional unity, a unity that arises from the need to do different tasks. Rather it is about the outright diversity of the body-parts that are different in every imaginable way, and yet still part of the whole. In teaching this class, I saw my role as trying to open some eyes to the mystery of diversity. Some were a bit puzzled that a class on American church history would pay any attention to Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. Others were fascinated to learn something of the trajectory of theology in America, from Puritans to modernists and fundamentalists and neo-orthodox. Most, I think, got a sense that this family we call “the church” is a lot bigger and more interesting than they imagined.

But most important, perhaps they began to understand that loving the body of Christ requires a certain amount of humility. One must realize that one doesn’t have all the answers. One must learn that people can have the best of motives, the most sincere of desires, and still end up being really wrong. One must admit that the same might be true of oneself.

I love the story about Angelo Roncalli, who had recently been enthroned as Pope John XXIII. A tourist was wandering around the Vatican, separated from his tour group, and ended up in what seemed to be a hall of mirrors. Increasingly disoriented, he was started when one of the mirrors opened, and there he was, standing face to face with the pope. The poor fellow was terrified, sure he would soon be arrested and probably excommunicated. The genial Pope John sized up the  situation instantly, and put his finger to his lips. “Shhh!” he admonished. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m lost, too.”

That’s where we all are, isn’t it? All of us, lost in a world that often doesn’t make much sense, a world that teaches us to build walls and barriers, to be suspicious and jealous, to hold fast to our own opinions and views. But we lost ones have been found by Jesus Christ, and he tears down the dividing walls we build. He has prayed for us, prayed that we might all be one, prayed that we might know the unity that comes from being part of one body. We don’t do it well; as my
Presbyterian students would say, there’s always that total depravity thing. But we keep working at it, and perhaps now and then there are signs of progress.

— by Richard O. Johnson, associate editor

Copyright 2004 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau
« Last Edit: October 15, 2004, 12:54:34 PM by roj »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS