The Body of Christ
I have been watching and helping a little as Menno and his helpers have been putting up the bus shed. It is a fascinating process. Each piece of material is added one at a time. Slowly the building is being completed. Sometimes you wonder, “Why is this piece going here?” but then you get to another stage of the building and it makes sense. Each step is important and you have to think about future steps when doing earlier steps. For example, if the foundation is not level, there will be problems with the whole building. In the end, a strong, solid building is almost ready to house our bus.
One of the joys of watching someone dance or play sports is to recognize all the different motions possible with the human body. There is a flexibility and a fluidity and yet a connectedness to the whole. The human body is an amazing thing. One day when I was dismantling our kitchen cabinets, my hammer slipped and I scrapped my little finger. You wouldn’t think that a little finger would be that important, but when you hurt it, and then afterwards you keep touching it, you realize just how much it plays a part in what you do with your hands.
This past summer I was involved in pre-marriage counseling with three couples and it was a good reminder of how the relationship between a husband and wife is a beautiful and blessed thing. Without love, marriage is a cold, unwelcome contract but when it is built on a loving relationship and lived in love it is a blessing.
By now you are probably wondering what I am going to talk about today. The images of a building, a body and marriage are used in the Bible to speak of the church. All three images appear in various shades in Ephesians 4:16 and this morning, I would like to examine this verse to think about what God intends the church to be.
What is your experience with the church? Have you found it a necessary evil, a part of your culture, a good place to come for an hour on Sunday, a community which helps you grow, a place where you are encouraged and helped through the struggles of life, a place where you can be equipped to contribute meaningfully to the eternal plan of God? What does God intend the church to be?
Ephesians 4:16 says, “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.” It teaches us what God intends for the church and invites us to examine our involvement.
I. The Growth of the Body
Carla has been training for the marathon she is planning to run in December. She read me a quote which was encouraging her in her preparation. It is attributed to George Patton and goes like this, “If you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do... the body is never tired if the mind is not tired."
In a healthy body, the mind, the head, is in charge, nevertheless, the rest of the body contributes to what the mind chooses to accomplish. I like the way the Good News Bible puts it in Ephesians 4:16 when it says, “Under His control…the whole body grows and builds itself up…” This phrase uses the imagery of the body to make some important points about what God wants to accomplish with His church.
A. Christ is the Source
The first thing we notice is that the growth of the body of Christ, the church, begins with the head of the body, which is Christ. The reference to Christ as head of the body comes from the previous verse and the point made in this verse is that Jesus is the source, the power from whom the growth of the church happens.
Christ is the source from which the church does what God wants it to do. Christ is the one who has established the church by His blood. The church is founded on the fact that Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is made up of those who believe in Christ.
Christ is the source from which the church accomplishes God’s work. It is the Spirit of Christ who unifies, empowers and forms the church into a unified body. It is not organizational structure or a church constitution which has brought us together to work for God. It is the Spirit of God who draws and keeps us together. If the unifying factor in our working for God ever becomes the church constitution or our connection as a denomination, we are doomed. As long as it is the Spirit of God who is the one keeping the church together and empowering the church, then God will accomplish great things.
Christ is the goal to whom the church is striving. The church is growing into Christ likeness, as we see from verse 15, which says, “…we will in all things grow up into Him, who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
So what is true for us? Are we the church because our ancestors came to this region from Russia 136 years ago? Are we the church because we adhere to a common doctrine? Are we the church because we like to meet our friends here? Are we the church because we are centered around the head, Jesus Christ?
B. The Body Builds Up the Body
So if Christ is the head of this church, is it also Christ who causes the church to grow? In part, “yes.” It is from Him that the church grows, but in part, “no.” The body of Christ builds up the body of Christ. That is what this verse says, “From him the whole body…grows and builds itself up.”
The growth of the body is a co-operative project which includes God’s work and our work. Marcus Barth writes that the themes are interwoven. “It is Christ, the head, alone ‘from whom’ the body derives unity, nourishment, growth – but Christ’s monarchy and monopoly do not exclude but rather create the activity of a church engaged in ‘its own’ growth and upbuilding.”
So the second thing we learn is that as a body we are responsible to do our part in growing the church. That means growth in two directions. It is first of all growth in reaching out beyond ourselves to those who do not know Christ and to invite them in to also share in the life we have been given by Christ. The other thing is to grow in maturity and to become more like Christ. Our church purpose statement, written on the banner, reflects this intention when it says, “At REMC we proclaim, follow and serve Jesus to the glory of God.” This also implies that each of us is responsible to contribute our part, but more of that later on. For now, just a reminder that we each have a part in growing the body of Christ and we can’t just leave it up to Christ, but must do what we can as a church.
C. The Body and the Individual
One of the messages about the church which is present in this verse is that this is much more about the church than about the individual. Our current cultural perspective has placed such a high value on the individual that it is hard for us to realize that what is spoken of here is not so much about me as it is about us. Although God cares about each individual, He is also concerned about the growth of the whole body.
This means that we need to have a much greater community perspective. We need to think about what God is doing in the whole body, not just about what God is doing in each person. That is why we need to find a way through conflict. That is why we need to be concerned about the spiritual maturity of the weakest member. That is why it is so important to care for one another. That is why we can’t let each other go.
II. What We Contribute to Growth
So God is interested in growing the church. Christ is the head and it is from Him that growth happens. However, we also contribute to the growth and, as we have read, “…the body builds itself up…” The question, which is also answered in the text, is, “how does the body build itself up?”
There is a fascinating phrase in this verse. It is put somewhat differently in different translations and I think it would be helpful to read several of them. We read NIV which says, “…the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament…” Good News Bible says, “…all the different parts of the body fit together, and the whole body is held together by every joint with which it is provided…”
In order to understand this image, which relates to the human body, I would like to ask several people to come and help me illustrate what I think this means. The text speaks about joints and ligaments. In order to illustrate, I would invite you to consider the elbow, which is a joint and has ligaments in it. The joint is flexible. It can swing back and forth, it contributes, with other joints like the shoulder and the hand, in being able to reach all over the place. If we put a splint on this joint, and made it stiff and tickled this person’s nose, they would be in great difficulty. So the usefulness of a joint is its flexibility, its ability to make corners and reach and bend.
However, even though it has this flexibility about it, it is solidly joined to the body. Here is where I would like to invite the other two of you to try to separate his elbow from the rest of the body. As you can see, it is strongly attached to the body.
What a great image of the way in which Christ builds His body. God intends there to be a flexibility in the body that allows it to reach all over the place. It is a flexibility which frees people like Frank and Marge, Jake and Bertha and others, to uproot their family and move to Paraguay, Mexico or some other part of the world in order to proclaim the gospel. It is an intended flexibility by which we do not demand that every member of the church teach Sunday School in this building. Some of us are involved in ministries in Winnipeg. Some of us are connected to all kinds of people we have met and to whom we are seeking to represent Christ. It is a flexibility which makes room for all kinds of different ministries like teaching at Union Gospel, cooking for ICYA or building for MDS.
Yet if all we had was flexibility and people went out and did their own thing all over the place and ministered in different places on their own, we would be missing something. Just like the elbow, God also intends that the ministries and the people of God be strongly connected to one another. It is in our connection with one another that we have great strength for God’s work. A moment ago, I spoke of the individualism which is such a mark of our society and has also crept into the church. If you read this phrase carefully, you will notice that its primary emphasis is the powerful connection which we have with each other. God has called His church to unity and togetherness and promises that in the context of that powerful connectedness He will build His church.
How strongly the elbow held on as we tried to pull this person’s elbows from his body! Just so strongly God is calling His church to be connected together. That means that we must maintain a bond with each other that is not easily severed. That means that when we disagree with each other, rather than leave, we need to find a way to work together. That is why the Harmony Project is inviting the conference and its churches to be unified in spite of the diversity that exists. That is why, as we send missionaries, empower leaders and begin many different ministries, we need to begin from a unified base. The imagery in this text speaks about being “joined and held together” as a body of Christ. It is both powerful and significant as a foundation from which God will grow His church. One of the critical ways in which God causes the church to grow is out of the strong community of faith. That is why we invite people to become members. We are saying it is important to set aside individualistic ways of thinking and to make a covenant with an imperfect body of believers. Community of faith and covenant to that community is a critical building block in God’s plan for His church. This is why the stronger members of the church assist the weak in growing. This is why we use the term communion when we observe the Lords’ supper, to emphasize the community of the body.
Hendriksen writes, “Just as the human body, when properly supported and held together, experiences normal growth, so also the church, when each of its members supports and maintains loving contact with the others and above all with Christ, will, under the sustaining care of God, proceed from grace to grace and glory to glory.”
Marcus Barth says, “While Christ provides for the body as a whole and makes it a unity, and while the body grows as a unit – no individual growth is mentioned here – the distinct personality of each church member is not wiped out but rather established by Christ’s rulership and the church’s community.”
B. Serving with Giftedness
We mentioned earlier that one of the images present in this verse is the image of a building being built. When a house is built, one of the interesting aspects is that many different trades contribute to the building of the house. It begins with a designer and an architect who sketch and outline all the different parts of the building so that it all fits. Then the concrete work begins and after that the framer does his work. Before the house is completed plumbers, electricians, boarders, tapers, painters, finish carpenters, cabinet installers, flooring specialists and a whole bunch of other people will have had their hand in the building.
God has designed a similar plan for the building of the church. In our text, this aspect of the growth of the church is mentioned in the phrase, “as each part does its work…” Once again, the Good News Bible has a great way of putting it when it says, “when each separate part works as it should, the whole body grows…”
Marcus Barth says, “All want forgiveness and are given forgiveness of sins, life from the dead, the seal of the Spirit, the administration of grace through the fellow saints. All move forward toward the final meeting with the ‘Perfect Man.’ But since everyone is called to contribute his own share to the servant work and in the growth of the church, each is also provided with a specific charisma(gift).” He also says, “Every saint is to make his own contribution to the mission and unity of the church.”
This is the most individualistic that this passage gets, but the direction is not towards, but away from individualism. It is not about what the church can do to meet my needs, but what I can contribute to the life of the church. Thinking about what the church can do to meet my needs is individualism. Thinking about what I can contribute to the life of the church is servanthood, and let’s be reminded that even “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” If Jesus came as a servant, then how can we do less than recognize that we have something to offer.
Each of us has been gifted by God to contribute something and we are called to offer what we have, not what we do not have. We should not feel bad about refusing a teaching position if God has not gifted us to teach. But we should feel bad about not teaching if we have the gift but are too busy with our own personal pursuits. The question each of us must ask is, “what is it that God has given me to do for His service?”
Then when we have determined what it is God has given us to offer to the church, we need to offer it and work. If we are not working in the church, we are creating a huge gap in God’s plan for the building of His church. We offer what we have for the good of the church. I love to watch it when people are serving in their area of giftedness, because when God gifts us and we offer our gifts to the church, not only does the church grow, but we also experience great blessing and joy.
Servanthood according to giftedness is God’s plan for the growth of the church. What are you contributing?
The other image which we see in this passage is marriage. The text speaks about being “joined…together…in love.” This adds one other critical element of how God wants to build His church and that is by love.
The previous verse speaks about “speaking the truth in love” and this verse says that the church “builds itself up in love.” Like a marriage is held together by love, a church functions effectively only in the context of love.
Hendriksen suggests that there are two great problems in the church - lack of truth and lack of love. I spoke with someone this week and they were telling us about how they became a believer. Because they came out of a background in which their family was not a believing family, they had no knowledge of doctrine or Biblical truth. What drew them to the church in the first place was love. They came, heard the gospel, met the people and stuck around because they saw the love that people had for them and for each other.
Love for one another is probably the most powerful theme in the preaching of Jesus and Paul. Whenever the Bible gets down to what is most important, it isn’t very long before love is spoken of. That must make us ask ourselves, “Is there anyone in this body I don’t love.” If we can think of someone, we have some serious work ahead of us. What do we need to do in order to restore love? What must our attitude towards that person be? What will love lead us to do?
Just like a marriage without love will be in serious trouble, a church without love is also in serious trouble. In a marriage, you have only two people and you can’t hide lack of love very long. In a church, if you sit on opposite sides of the church and don’t attend meetings, you can probably exist without love for quite a while, but eventually the church is compromised. It is a serious thing not to love everyone in the body of Christ. The growth of the church is hampered when that happens. What does that mean practically? Is there someone in the body of Christ you don’t love? It is your responsibility to do something about it. It may mean making a connection, forgiving, seeking forgiveness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, choosing to trust them or engage in an act of kindness.
To emphasize this very important point, Marcus Barth puts it this way, “…love is denoted as the ground, the sphere, the instrument of the church’s existence.” And Calvin said, “Without the rule of love, the church is not built but dispersed.”
What does it all mean?
This verse is an announcement to rejoice that Christ is building His church!
This verse is an appeal to community!
This verse is an appeal to contribute!
This verse is an appeal to love!
May we hear and obey the Word of God as He calls us to be the body of Christ in this place.